Life with the Cavaliers

The following is a section from Reminiscences of Peace and War by Sara Agnes Rice Pryor describing her stay on her Uncle’s plantation in the Spring and Summer of 1861. The contrast between the Virginia she describes and the one we see today is stark.

We see in her description of the Southern Presbyterian Church a congregation that is compassionate to its black members and honors those who exemplify Christ. Contrast that to the Southern Presbyterian churches we see today, where the black man is not treated with any type of compassion or respect, but rather as a pet to be flaunted in front of one’s peers in order to receive praise.  Look at the community Mrs. Pryor describes. There are regular neighborhood meals, and everyone knows and cares for their neighbors. Contrast that to our modern communities. I for one haven’t had a meal with one of my neighbors in at least a decade, in fact, I couldn’t even tell you most of my neighbors’ names. Look at the relationships between the races.  Black men of good character are leading their own communities, they look to white men for guidance, and there is respect for the white man as their cultural better. Contrast that to today, the average black man shows no responsibility for his own family, much less his community, he ignores the instructions of his betters, and he shows nothing but disdain for white men.

Southern man: as you read this, remember what men of Dixie once had. Contrast that to what we are left with and remember who took this from us.  Let this drive you to retake your birthright!

-Boggs Smith

The month of July, 1861, found me with my little boys at “The Oaks” — the residence of Dr. Izard Bacon Rice, in Charlotte County, seventy miles from Richmond, and miles away from the nearest railroad depot. There I might have enjoyed a peaceful summer with my kind host — a fine type of a Christian gentleman, some-time an Old-Line Whig and fierce Union man, now an ardent advocate of states’ rights, and a stanch supporter of the New Confederacy. I might — as I had often done before — have reveled in the fine trees; the broad acres of tobacco in their summer prime, when the noble plant was proudly flinging out its banners before its fall; the old garden with its box-edged crescents, stars, and circles, — I might have dreamed away the summer in perfect contentment but for General Beauregard. Distant as was his army, a message from his guns reached my summer retreat more than a hundred miles away.

Dr. Rice lived in a large, old-fashioned house, on a plantation of two thousand acres or more. An oak grove, alive with chattering squirrels which had been held sacred for two generations, surrounded the house. The squirrels held conventions in the trees, and doubtless expressed their opinions of the family below, whom they had good reason to consider inferior beings, inasmuch as they were slow-motioned, heavy creatures, utterly destitute of grace and agility, and with small appreciation of hickory-nuts.

The Doctor cultivated tobacco, and when I arrived the fields stretched as far as the eye could reach, now a vast level sea of green, now covering the low, gently rounded, undulating hills as they sloped down to the Staunton River. There was never a season when these fields were not alive with laborers of every age; for the regal plant so beloved of men — and ranking with opium and hemp as a solace for the ills of mankind — has enemies from the hour it peeps from the nursery of the hot bed. It can never be forgotten a moment. Children can hunt the fly which seeks to line the leaf with eggs, or destroy the unhatched eggs, or aid the great army which must turn out in haste when the ravenous worm is born. The earth must be turned frequently at the roots, the flower buds pinched off, the shoots or “suckers” removed. The Doctor’s tobacco field was an enlivening spectacle, and very picturesque did the ebony faces of the little workers look, among the broad leaves. No lady’s garden was ever kept so clean, so free from sticks, errant bits of paper, or debris of any kind.

I do not claim that Dr. Rice, my uncle, was a typical planter — as far as the government of his slaves was concerned. He had inherited liberal ideas with these inherited slaves. His grandfather, David Rice, had written the first published protest in this country against slavery as “inconsistent with religion and policy.” His father had ruled a plantation where severe punishment was unknown, where the cheerful slaves rarely needed it. The old gentleman was considered eccentric — and eccentric it surely was for a master to punish a fault by commanding the culprit to stand in his presence while he recited a long passage from Homer or Virgil! The punishment was effective. For fear of it, the fault was rarely repeated.

It was my uncle’s custom to assemble every slave on his plantation on Sunday morning, and to speak a few words to each one, commending the women if their families appeared in clean, well-kept garments, rewarding with a pair of shoes the urchins reported by “Uncle Moses” as having been orderly and useful, exchanging a pleasant jest here and there.

He presented a tight, comfortable house to every newly married pair, with timber for the bridegroom to add to it, to enclose the piece of land for a garden or a poultry yard which went with it. Every mother at the birth of a child was presented with a pig. The plantation, which was large and fruitful, and from which nothing but tobacco and wheat was ever sold, yielded vegetables, poultry, mutton, beef, bacon in lavish abundance, while the orchards and vines were equally productive.

Some hundred of the negroes of the neighborhood were members of the Presbyterian church of the whites.  In the old church books may be seen to-day records of their marriages and funerals, and how (for example) “Lovelace Brown brought before the session for hog-stealing and suspended for one month.” But there were better records than this. These Presbyterian negroes were at one time led by an eminent patriarch, Uncle Abel, who deserves more than a passing notice. He had been taught to read and had been well drilled in the Shorter Catechism. But his marriage ceremonies were always read from the Episcopal Prayer-book, every word of which he held sacred, not to be changed or omitted to suit any modern heresy. “I M, take thee N,” was the formula for Jack or Peter, Dilsey or Dicey — and “with this ring I thee wed” must be pronounced with solemnity, ring or no ring, the latter being not at all essential.

My uncle’s old family coach, punctual to the minute, swept around the circle on the lawn every Sunday morning, with Uncle Peter proudly guiding the horses from his high perch. And high-swung was the coach, to be ascended (as we ascended our four-poster beds) by three carpeted steps, — in the case of the carriage, folding steps, which were tucked inside after we had disposed of ourselves, with our ample hoops. There was plenty of room inside. Pockets lined the doors, and these were filled by my aunt with beaten biscuit and sugarcakes “for the little darkies on the road.”

Arriving at the church, the gentlemen from the adjacent plantations, who had been settling the affairs of the nation under the trees, came forward to hand us from our carriage, after the manner of old-time cavaliers and sedan-chairs; and my aunt and I would be very gracious, devoutly hoping in our hearts that my uncle and his sons would not forget a reciprocal courtesy when Mrs. Winston Henry, Mrs. Paul Carrington, and Mrs. Sarah Carrington should arrive.

The women all seated themselves on the right side of the church, while the men, during the singing of a preliminary hymn, came in like a processional and took the left as their portion, — all of which (except the advertisements on the church doors) was conducted precisely according to the customs of Revolutionary times, when Patrick Henry and John Randolph, now sleeping a few miles away, were themselves (we trust) church-goers.

Church dinners at home were simple, but abundant, — so that if three or four carriages should arrive from distant plantations in the neighborhood, there could be welcome and refreshment for all, but on the great days when my uncle and aunt received the neighborhood, when the Carringtons and Patrick Henry’s sons, John and Winston, came with their families to spend the day, the dinner was something to be remembered. Perhaps a description verbatim from an old family servant will be better than anything I can furnish from memory.

“Yes, sir! We had fine dinners in them days. The butter was moulded like a temple with pillars, and a rose stuck in the top. There was a wreath of roses roun’ all the dessert dishes. Viney biled the ham in cider. We had roas’ pig, biled turkey, chickens fried an’ briled, spring lam’, ducks an’ green goslin*. An’ every cut-glass dish in the house was full of preserves, an’ the great bowl full of ice-cream, an’ floatin’ island, an’ tipsy-cake, an’ cheese-cakes, an’ green sweetmeats, an’ citron. John was bothered where to set all the dishes.”

Our guests would remain late, that they might have the cool evening hours for their long drives. Mr. John Henry, with his family of gifted sons and beautiful daughters, lived at Red Hill, the home of his father, the great orator and patriot, under the trees his father had planted and near the grave where he sleeps. Mr. Winston Henry had also an interesting family, and lived in an old colonial house not far away, surrounded by grounds filled in summer with pomegranates and gardenias, and with lemon and orange trees in tubs, also great trees of heliotrope, and vines of jessamine — a paradise of beauty and sweetness. Rosalie Henry would bring her guitar to my uncle’s and sing for us by the hour. She was so loved, so cherished by her parents, that they gave her a bedroom over their own, to which she ascended by a stairway from their own apartment — all that they might be near her. But one morning early, pretty Rosalie changed gowns with her maid, put a pail on her head, and slipped past her trusting, adoring parents to join her lover in the jessamine bower, and in a bridal robe of linsey-wool-sey was married at the next town! Then it was that my good uncle had his opportunity. The sublime teaching of forgiveness was respected from his kindly lips.

In the early summer of ’61 Virginia planters were not all d’accord on political questions; and like Agag, it behooved us to “walk delicately” in conversation. One thing they would not endure. Politics were to be kept out of the pulpit. Never had the pastor such attentive congregations; they were watching him, keenly alive to the remotest hint or allusion to the war. His business was with the spiritual kingdom of God. He must not interfere with Caesar’s. He found it expedient to omit for the present the warlike aspirations of David, in which he beseeches the Lord’s attention to his enemies, and, among other things calculated to comfort and soothe his pious feelings, prays that they may be as “stubble before the wind,” as “wood before fire,” and be ” rooted forever out of the land of the living.”

“Enemies” were not to be alluded to in the pulpit. Nor, indeed, not yet in private! It was proper and in good taste to speak of them as “Federals”; but at no very distant day these same polite gentlemen called them “enemies” with a will; when scornfully disposed, they were “Yankees,” and when they wished to be positively insulting, “Yanks.”

Across the river from the Oaks was “Mildendo,” the home of the Carrington family. From this home went every man capable of bearing arms — Fontaine, the fine young surgeon so well placed in the United States Navy, and his brother, the grave head of the house upon whom everybody depended; and one, a cousin, leaving his bride at the altar, Patrick Henry’s grandsons all enlisted. Mr. Charles Bruce left his baronial castle on Staunton Hill near the Oaks, equipped the “Staunton Hill Artillery Company” at his own expense, placed himself at its head and shared all its hardships. His brother, Mr. James Bruce, cut up his rich carpets and curtains for the soldiers’ blankets. These were but a few of the gallant neighbors of my uncle, who exchanged homes of luxury for the hardships of war — all of whom probably shared General Lee’s keen sorrow at the necessity forced upon Virginia to withdraw her allegiance from the Union.

My uncle had a son already in the cavalry service — and another, Henry, a fine young fellow of sixteen, was at Hampden-Sidney College, Virginia. Presently a letter from the latter filled the family at the Oaks with — yes, anxiety — but at the same time a proud sense of how old Revolutionary “blood will tell.” Henry was on the march! At the first tocsin of war the students of Hampden-Sidney had rushed to arms — most of them under age; and when their president, the venerated Rev. John Atkinson, found they would go, he placed himself at their head as their captain. Military tactics had not been included in his theological training. So promptly had he responded to the call or his country he had no opportunity to drill his young soldiers according to the rules of Hardee and Jomini ; but he did more for them than this. His fatherly care and his example of courage, fortitude, and faith in the cause inspired them to bear hardships which were severe almost beyond their powers of endurance.

Notwithstanding the inexperience of their captain, these boys, fresh from their college halls, were often publicly complimented as they headed the column in the long marches over the mountains of Virginia. When they were called to Richmond their patriotic ardor received a shock. Governor Letcher seriously took under consideration the propriety of sending them back to school on account of their youth. A committee from the company waited upon him, and he was finally prevailed upon to allow them to go to the front.

They soon learned what war was — these beardless college boys, and bore themselves gallantly in several engagements. But their military career was brief. McClellan flanked their position at Rich Mountain, July 12, 1861, and cut off every avenue of retreat. The whole command, after a sharp engagement, were made prisoners of war. For the time being the boys felt their military career to have been an inglorious failure.

While tney were thus disappointed and depressed, a Federal oflicer, presumably a lieutenant, visited them in the prison camp. He said he had heard so much of the boy soldiers led by their college president that he wished to make their acquaintance.

The boys were not by way of being over anxious to receive visits from their victors. The officer asked, ” Why in the world are you here?”

“We are here to fight! ” said they. “What do you suppose we came for ?”

“Well, boys,” said the officer, pleasantly, “make yourselves easy. I’ll send you home to your mothers in a few days.”

The officer was General McClellan!

The company was paroled, but was not exchanged for a year. This prolonged parole, they always thought, was due to General McClellan’s influence in order to give them a whole year at college. They all returned to the army after their exchange, but never as the “Hampden-Sidney Boys.” They never forgot the little interview with the General. He won all their hearts.

Our own Hampden-Sidney boy, Henry Rice, soon afterward wrote from a hospital in Richmond that he was ill with fever. My uncle ordered him home, and I took the great family coach and Uncle Peter and went to the depot, fourteen miles away, to fetch him. He looked so long, that I doubted whether I could bestow him in the carriage; and as he was too good a soldier for me to suggest that he be “doubled up,” I entered the carriage first, had his head and shoulders placed in my lap, then closed the door and swung his long legs out of the window!

My uncle was a fine specimen of a Christian gentleman — always courteous, always serene. I delighted in following him around the plantation on horseback. When he winnowed his wheat. Uncle Moses, standing like an emperor amid the sheaves, filled the hearts of my little boys with ecstasy by allowing them to ride the horses that turned the great wheel. Finally the wheat was packed in bags, and we stood on the bank of the river to see it piled into flat-bottomed boats on the way to market.

The next morning Moses appeared at the dining room door while we were at breakfast.

“Good morning, Moses,” said my uncle. “I thought you were going with the wheat.”

“Dar ain’t no wheat,” said the old man. “Hit’s all at de bottom of the river.”

“How did that happen?”

“We jest natchelly run agin a snag; when de boat turn over, hit pulled all de others down. ‘Cose you know, Marster, dey was tied together, an’ boat ain’ got no eyes to see snags.”

“Well — get out your chains and grappling hooks, Moses, and save all you can. It will do to feed the chickens.”

“Why, Uncle!” I exclaimed, “how calmly you take it.”

“Certainly,” sad he; “because I’ve lost my crop is that any reason I should lose my temper? Here, Pizarro, have our horses saddled. We’ll go down to the river and encourage Moses to resurrect his wheat.” (Pizarro was John’s son. John had studied with the boys of the family, and knew some history and Latin. One of the women bore the classic name of “Lethe”; others were “Chloe” and ” Daphne”; another name, frequently repeated, was “Dicey” — a survival, according to Mr. Andrew Lang, of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which was found among the Indians and the Virginia negroes of colonial times. Orpheus seems to have perished from their traditions, but Dicey is still a favorite name. The descendants of Lethe and Pizarro still live at the Oaks. A late achievement shows their progress under new conditions, the baptismal records having been enriched with “Hazel-Kirke-Florida-Bell-Armazinda-Hodge,” more imposing if less suggestive than the ” Homicide” and ” Neuralgia” of a neighboring county.)

This precise type of a Virginia plantation will never appear again, I imagine. I wish I could describe a plantation wedding as I saw it that summer. But a funeral of one of the old servants was peculiarly interesting to me. “Aunt Matilda” had been much loved, and when she found herself dying, she had requested that the mistress and little children should attend her funeral. “I ain’ been much to church,” she urged, “I couldn’t leave my babies. I ain’ had dat shoutin* an’ hollerin’ religion, but I gwine to heaven jes’ de same” — a fact of which nobody who knew Aunt Matilda could have the smallest doubt.

We had a long, warm walk behind hundreds of negroes, following the rude coffin in slow procession through the woods, singing antiphonally as they went one of those strange, weird hymns not to be caught by any Anglo-Saxon voice.

It was a beautiful and touching scene, and at the grave I longed for an artist (we had no kodaks then) to perpetuate the picture. The level rays of the sun were filtered through the green leaves of the forest, and fell gently on the dusky, pathetic faces, and on the simple coffin surrounded by orphan children and relatives, very dignified and quiet in their grief.

The spiritual patriarch of the plantation presided. Old Uncle Abel said : — “I ain’ gwine keep you all long. ‘Tain’ no use. We can’t do nothin’ for Sis’ Tildy. All is done fer her, an’ she done preach her own fune’al sermon. Her name was on dis church book here, but dat warn’ nothin’, ‘dout ’twas on de Lamb book too!

“Now whiles dey fillin’ up her grave I’d like you all to sing a hymn Sis’ Tildy uster love, but you all know 1 bline in one eye, an’ de sweat done got in de other; so’s I can’t see to line it out, an’ I dunno as any o’ you all ken do it ” — and the first thing I knew, the old man had passed his well-worn book to me, and there I stood, at the foot of the grave, “lining out”: —

“Asleep in Jesus, blessed sleep

From which none ever wakes to weep,” —words of immortal comfort to the great throng of negro mourners who caught it up, line after line, on an air of their own, full of tears and tenderness, — a strange, weird tune no white person’s voice could ever follow.

Among such scenes I passed the month of June and the early part of July, and then General Beauregard reminded us that we were at war, and had no right to make ourselves comfortable.

Dr. Rice, on the afternoon of the 21st, had betaken himself to his accustomed place under the trees, to escape the flies, — the pest of Southern households in summer, — and had lain down on the grass for his afternoon nap. He suddenly called out excitedly: “There’s a battle going on — a fierce battle — I can hear the cannonading distinctly. Here — lie down — you can hear it!” “Oh, no, no, I can’t!” I gasped. “It may be at Norfolk.”

Like Jessie, who had heard the pibroch at the siege of Lucknow, he had heard, with his ear to the ground, the firing at Manassas. The battle of Bull Run was at its height. We found it difficult to understand that he could have heard cannonading one hundred and fifty miles away. We had not then spoken across the ocean and been answered.