Thursday, February 7, 2013

February 7, 1863: Lucy Chase writes from Craney Island

An 1862 map of Craney Island, Virginia.
In December 1862, Quaker sisters Sarah and Lucy Chase arrived in Norfolk, Virginia from Worchester, Massachusetts. Lucy was age 39 and her sister, Sarah, age 25. The sisters were representatives of the Boston Education Commission. The military governor of Norfolk, Major General Ben Butler, assigned the sisters to work with 2,000 miserable contrabands on nearby Craney Island. On February 7, 1863, Lucy Chase wrote a long letter home.
Feb 7 1863

Dear home folks

I am rejoicing with the happy negro in his greed for letters. One word of instruction from a teacher brightens the face of the learner with shining content. Frock coat or shoes, he takes as his due; but every step of his creeping progress into the mysteries of letters elevates his spirit like faith in a brilliant promise. Scattered about the houses of the whites are pleasing, intelligent women, who serve as cooks. One of them told me that she was very willing to take her share of suffering and all who were in the room with us, said they would suffer still more, rather than again become slaves. The woman said she should the very happy, feeling that her children can spend “The balance of their days in freedom, though she had been in bonds.” Want of house-room makes it impracticable to form classes at present, but we can assist those we employ directly about us, and may be able in that way, to form a corps of A.B.C. teachers. Five thousand or more bags are to be sent here from the Quarter-Master’s Dept for repairs. The carpenters are now preparing a work-oom for the needle-women, and, when they gather there I propose reading the Bible to them, and if, practicable, teaching them their letters. “When our ship comes in”t will come in the form of a meeting-and-school-house in one, and, until that auspicious day, we can be helpful to but few.

I laid aside my pen a moment ago to write the following, in the form of a letter. “My dear Dick: I hope you will not forget me, and I will not forget you. I am a lady of my word, and I hope you will prove to me that you are a gentleman of yours. I am doing very well on Craney Island. Don think that I dont think as well of you as you do of me. So I write to you, hoping that you will keep the same word you told me in Hampton, that you would not forget me, and that you would come and see me wherever I might be. I shall be a lady of my word, if you are not a gentleman of yours." "Is it to your husband," I said? before commencing. "No," she replied, "To my beau."When she ceased dictating she said, "That's all, you put something there pretty for me, now." So I added "Something pretty," about loving each other while separated; trusting in living together sometime, and loving and caring for each other 'till their dying days. The maiden was pretty, coy, and loving. I was really fascinated by her charming bashfulness. We have, in daily attendance upon us, three girls ; young to all appearance but one of them has been the mother of one or more children, and another has lost six "since she entered the Army." She "sent first to Ham;pton , then came here , then has sent to Newport News, and then came here again. The mortality among the children since theywere brought "into the Army" has been immense. I have already told you that it has been greatly reduced here. Our cook says she has had "a right smart chance of childeren," but that she has lost them all. One of the girls said, today, that Mrs. Brown's [?] her children behind her with her master, when she ran away. She said one morning her master ordered all the house-servants to the field, a not uncommon custom in busy times, but, when he ordered them into a wagon, she hid away, and saw all the others driven Southward. She said she was perfectly contented with her mistress, was satisfied with her lot, and had, formerly, been willing to live with her mistress all her days; "But, when the Union came along, then, peared-like they would like to kill us. They told us the Yankees was going to send us to Cuba, and goin to eat us up." She said her mistress never sent her to the whipping post because she had such a very bad temper. "But, when she was angry herself and I had not dun nothin she'd lash me and then she'd read the Bible to me till I got qualified ." This same woman told Sarah one night that she wanted very much to go to church. Sarah said, "Well, ask Mrs Brown She'll let you." "Ask Mrs. Brown!" said Nancy, "No, indeed I wont ask Mrs Brown. What do you think God would think if I should ask Mrs Brown if I might go to meeting ! What ud he think to see me go and ask any man if I might go to church!" I told her today, to get an early supper and hurry off to church. But she went only to return. "What's the matter Nancy?" "Oh, they don't sing to suit me. They didn't rise and fall alike, and they did not put in such words as become the music. Taint Scripture. Then I could not stand outside long and I want going to crowd in. I wont breathe such air. I want to be outside where it can blow all round me. I should go frantic to get squeezed into their dirty rags, and the very sight of them would get something into my hair."

Lizzie asks if Dr Brown is a New Englander. He is from Connecticut. He is acquainted with Dr Sargent,' and he speaks highly of Dr S's professional skill. Of course you all want to know all I can tell you about him. We supposed he was a D.D. having been told before coming here that he was a minister; and so, at our first dinner, we waited for "grace." We told him that we expected to see him with a white choker on, he replied, "You may yet see me with a choker on, if the rebels get me." The Dr is over six feet; large, and handsome, not elegant in manner, but truly graceful in his awkwardness. Very warmhearted and affectionate, though showing in all his relations that he was born to rule. He sways most becomingly the arbitrary law of military discipline. He has a John Donneslike love for nature, throws himself on the sofa and talks finished pictures of country sights and sounds. We seem to feel the breezes, to hear the leaves rustle overhead, to listen to the babbling brook, and to see the kine come home. I should like to send you a sheet of his country talk. You would have laughed with us to hear him one-day "Tell us our history." "Oh, you've attended two or three courses of Dr Cutler's lectures, you sleep with your windows open, you take the water cure journal, you've had Fowler examine your heads, you've got hair-mittens, and hair-towels, any no of flesh-brushes in your room at home." The Dr shows great capacity for organization. His community was planted here but yesterday; but, directed by his brain, it has already made for itself a picturesque village. It meets daily many of its daily wants and hopes to meet your want, for early spring vegetables.

Fifty or sixty white people, are, at present, subject to the Dr's oversight; and what they have done today, and what they shall do tomorrow are studies for the Dr's brain. Twenty of the whites constitute the guard. One is head-oyster-man (He superintends the planting of oysters) another is a blacksmith, and several form a squad of carpenters (soldiers detailed for work on the Island.) All the whites are connected with the army. Even our house-walls tell us that we are in the army. Black target-circles adorn our bed-room walls, and parlor and dining-room vie with the homes of the dead—great in wall names. Everybody is glaringly invited not to spit upon my chamber-floor. And there is no lack of written indications that the 10th N.Y. Regt was determined to "furnish ample information" to all who came after that it was "The first Regiment that landed on this island." " Whence shall our wood come," is the Dr's cry just now. Men from Isd. daily waw and bring by water fueld for the daioly fires, and when the available heavy tinder is exhaused on one rebel-estate other timber-land must be plundered. Gen Banks follows in Gen. Butler's footsteps, and taxes the rebels of of N.O. to support the city-poor and high-way robbers though we are we are still law-abiding citizens.

We drove our confiscated horse, a day or two ago, upon the woodlands of a so-so Unionist-- (A man who brings us eggs and chickens and buys of us sugar and molasses) for the purpose of loking into the merits of his timber, but, to my relief of mind, we found it too small. However, as a pretended Unionist, Dr. Brown's certificate of receipt would insure him government-pay. Or, I should say, it might insure payment. I suppose if hisw loyalty was questioned, it would be necesary for him to prove it. That short drive was my second essay upon the mainland. We crossed the ford at low-tide, and rode a few miles upon the beach, in preference to driving in the country. We went to Pigs-point, memorable in the early days of the present war, passed rebel rifle-pits and abatti, and drove over a large camping-ground of a Georgia Regiment. The large, substantial barracks, still standing, are of mud-cemented logs; and, if their excellent roofs had not found their way to our "Quarters," the village would seem to invite emigrants. The barracks enclose a square ; they are near each-other ; and it is supposed they were designed to serve as barricades against infantry. The universal custom in this country of building outside chimneys was not lost sight of by the builders of those barracks. Of mud and sticks the chimneys were built, and they still stand, pointing a moral and telling a tale. Opposite Pigs-point is Newport News, near whose shore we saw the Minnesota and Galena at anchor. We saw the yucca not in pots and housed, but thriving on the sandy wayside banks. On the evening of the same day I went sailing with the Dr an dhis wife, in one of our steam-boats. We cruised about, in search of a large lighter, which was tide-stayed a day or two before and which we helped to tow home. But we were hailed in the darkness with the artcially-jmelancholy cry--"We can't get out"--and so we turned homeward, leaving the woodmen to pass their second-night with the worthless stumps which they had despoiled of their glory.

We drove over to visit the distressed woodment the same day in the day-time, and found the poor fellows hovering over a smoke-belching fire, walled about with evergreens, their camp of the night before. They had been impudent enough toleave their rations behind them, and had been thirty or nore hours wihtout food, though their hunger had been staid before our arrival through the Drs thoughtful prevision.

A few hours dependence upon out-door resources makes one a scheming settler. The3 men looked as if they had begun a life-time there, and I almost fancied I could see an incipient Crney in the frontier-settlement.

One day the woodsmen found half their wood stolen. The Dr. hearing that some of them saw the guilty man rifling the pile sent for the squad, and asked one man if he was sure Mr. ___ was the thief. "Well, I can't say responsible; 'twas him" said the man.

A woman said complaining the other day, "Dr. I wish you'd keep that man from interesting (interrupting) me so much. He keeps interesting me all the time."

At low tide women and boys wade into the water to dig for clams. They reap a very scanty harvest, and they are forced to reap it with sticks. A spade! is a sure clam-send! and lucky is the chap who can hold one for an hour. I am afraid a little boy we caught in the act, a few days ago, hardly counted sixty minutes for his hour. "Hullo, my lad," said the Dr, "what's your name?" "America, Sir." "Well, take that spade right back to Mr Miller" (Chief of Police, who superintends the daily sweeping of the Island, and who, for some special purpose, had put the spade in the boys hand). "Take it right back, America, or I'll give you United States," said the Dr playfully. "Pocahontas" came to me yesterday for shoes ; but poor "Queen Victoria" is yet unclothed. Hannibal had a new coat this morning, and Abe Lincoln cried, in honor of his new birth, and, if not, because "He had not had a rag of clothing since he came into the army." Certainly before he had a rag of clothing after he came into the army. A tatteredde maiden modestly asked the Dr today for a pair of pantaloons. "Why, Uncle, have not you a better pair," "Yaas suh, Ise got one better pair." "Well, Uncle, what do you want another pair for?" "Well suh they've got a hole in each of the knees, and some holes behind." Appearances seemed to indicate that those he had on had holes behind, though I could not so affirm, as he spread his hands upon the affected part when he turned his face from us to pass through the door. Two very old men bent with age, were made both comfortable and grateful this morning. Freedom came too late to them to teach them their right to gratify their wants; and every look and movement was servile. But, as happy as children with new toys, they smiled and bowed, and declared to the four walls, "These are gentlemen and ladies waiting on us."

There is such a great lack of women's clothing that we substitute vests and pants for petticoats and sacks. One woman lingered today, after I had made her comfortable and I said, Do you want any-thing more? "There is so many gentleman here I can't ask you for what I want." Her want was a chemise. I suggested to her that she should have blushed when I handed her the pantaloons.

Fourth-day the 4th. Yesterday, we had our first snow-fall. It was lilght, but it was accompaied with a furious wind, and it brought misery to our community. The wood-choppers with difficulty stemmed the tide, and found to their dismay, and to the dismay of the amost perishing islanders, that some one had stolen the wood. The suspected man is the husband of a woman who may have thought her prayers answered yesterday when the snow fell on Craney Isd. She expressed a wish, sometime ago, that "snow might come upon the Isd, and send the niggers flying home to heaven."

It did fall. And the Dr rose and hurried every white man to his feet, and to their rescue. The boats could not run to Norfolk, and to the Fortress, and the Dr impressed the captains into the special service of the day! Soldiers and civilians breasted the story, and every one showed zeal in seeking, and meeting the wants of the hour. Evrfy barrack and tent was visited. fuel was sent to the freed? and men were deputed to provide for the threatening night. The building timber! was cut, and sitritubted; but at noon, the sun broke out, the wood-choppers came home with wood, the Dr's agents came into the office with reports of good-works well-done. And we felt that she whould all weather the storm.

The frowning Providence sent a frowning multitude to our doors all day yesterday, and we were forced to break our good rule of distributing clothing by districts. All through the morning our entry was filled with the shivering, driven early from their wet beds, and coming from their empty fire-places to seek cold comfort in our cheerless hall. The most destitute could not, of course, come out, and, most unwillingly, we gave shoes to those who manifested their toes to us, feeling that there were, shivering by empty fire-places feet manifested in their entirety. The stock of women's shoes was soon exhausted, and we were forced to distribute to the women men's shoes. It seemed as cruel to rob the men, but it was cruel to deny the women; and from one dose of cruelty my conscience sought refuge in performing another, and I was forced to send sick and shivering women home with their worthless shoes. Many are entirely destitute of bed-clothing, and we were unable to meet half the need by sending out our entire stock of clean, white, hospital-blankets. Even today we learn of many new cases of extreme need. One young, motherless girl, who has been here several weeks, has been without sufficient clothing to keep her warm by day, and has had neither bed nor coverlet by nights and has set up through the long watches of every night ! Cases of long continued suffering which has escaped observation are not rare here. Women are taken sick and die without entering the hospital or letting their wants be known. It is the duty of the Squad-Master to report the sick, but many lie in silent suffering cared for by their companions and shrinking from calling on the Dr. Death must surprise them as much as it does us when it takens them off so suddenly. "Taken sick on Sunday, and died this morning," says the squad-master when he comes to me for a shroud. Several famillies are still destitute of beds. Sick women and children are lying upon boards which are made no softer by our sympathy. Craney Island planks have no soft side. The North must feather them.

Whether needy or not, our people are given to greediness and complaining, and we are forced often to pass them unheeded as one does besieging coachmen. I sometimes fancy myself fast growing hard-hearted, but my heart as often leaps warm denial to m my fancy, and I laugh when I realize that I incrust myself in a coarse-grained habit after the fashion of all men who brush daily against the idiosyncrasies of the crowd.

It may interest you to know that we occupy a decidedly "airy situation." Tell Arthur that "the wind whistles after us." I am afraid it would be necessary for Dr Collins, if he should visit us here, to "Hold his hat on" even when our windows are closed. The winds, when they are abroad, have free sweep across our island, and they howled like ravenous wolves, all day yesterday. It is only necessary, at all times, to draw a chair near the wall, if we wish to gauge the amount of air stirring abroad. When the balmy South is true to her traditions, gentle breezes fan our brows, but, when Northern fury [?] her, the sharp teeth of fiery dragons pierce us, and threaten to carry us off. Last night, cross-winds swept over our bed, and wove a network of frost about us, and I know of two more than Tom who were cold.

I have not told you of half the expedients to which the Dr resorted to defy the storm. When we were coming from the office to our dinners men were hacking the cannon-carriages in pieces. "That looks like the coming of peace," I said, "as well as like coming to pieces." An armed guard was stationed all day at the redout , to guard the wood as it was brought in across the ford. The Dr was filled with anxiety, all day, lest the ford should become impassable. Poets say that standing forests "groan" but that day timber, mules, and wagons groaned in sharpest unison as they ploughed through miles of Virginia mud. In the afternoon, when the waves were stilled the Dr sent his steam-boats to Norfolk for wood, and they have gone again, today, on the same errand. Sarah decleares she used a "warped shingle, white-washed" this morning, in lieu of her towel for which the frost-spirit had substituted the shingle.Today comes rain--a deluge without and within. "Hot and cold water all over the house!" A desideratum in dry weather, but too much of a good thing in foul.

Turned, by the incoming shower, from our room into the dining room, we thanked Nancy, Mrs. Brown, the rebel architects and our good fortune for the promise of the night. Sarah, sick, went early to bed. Her head was hardly on her pillow when she sent for me to p lace an opoen umbrella at her head-board. Nancy encircled the stove with tin-wash basins and, to the music of resounding water[-drops Sarah was lulled to sleep. The basins speedily filled and ?, the night long, showering the ground with "earth-rejoicing drops," but neither my vigilance nor the capacity of the basins availed much and wathers covered the floor. In the mid-watches of the night, I rose and set sail in my bed-room. Sarah suggested that I must not perambulate barefooted, and urged me to put on slippers. So I put my feet int o a pair that were new at the moment. I put them on, but turned old in less time than a single night, and chillinglyl suggested rubber boots. I lifted all our heavy trunks alone and put them high that they might remain dry; took our books, photographs, and other water-soaking valuables from the shelves, our dresses from the nails, and made desolation general throughout our borders.

Nancy, fondly hoping to kmake the dining-room seem home-like and never doubting that the rain would s\pare us there, carried a little table and other unnecessary pieces of furniture into our new bed-room. Mrs. Brown said "Oh Nancy, you need carry any-thing but the bed into the room." "Why, you see," said Nancy, "I did not know but Miss Chase might want to write and so I thought to carry in her table and portfolio." A few days ago I sent Shorty from the office to the house for my portfolio, and left the children, saying to Mrs. Brown, I'll go and get it. I reckon none uh the others'll know what a portfolio is. Nancy is very kind and devoted. The finest specimen of a slave-nurse. She made a roasting fire under Sarah's very nose. Sarah said, "Oh waht a rousing fire you've made, Nancy." "Yes, Miss Sarah. I reckoned you'd wouldn't want to get up and make it and then you see I felt as if I wanted to do my dury." A little remissness in the fire-making line of duty would be a matter for rejoicing with Sarah and me. If we live through the fiery ordeal of this winter we may be able to travel about the country to test the heat of brick-ovens by crawling into them after the coals have been removed. The Dr catechised Nancy last evening, and found she needed no religious teacher. "Nancy do you believe in so much excitement as your people work themselves into when in meetings?" "No, sir, I dont." "What do you think of, Nancy?" "Oh its self, they can deceive man, but they can't deceive God. They sees each other doing so; and so they does it." "Where is heaven, Nancy." "Heaven can be here below sir, as well as above." "What sort of a place is it, Nancy?" "I cant tell temporarily, that is discerned spiritually." "Do you think hair will be straight there, Nancy?" "Oh, yes sir, hair will be straight there." "Do you think the slave-holders will go to heaven?" "If Massa's good he'll go to heaven with all the rest of the just." "What is your idea of God, Nancy?" "He's all in a smile," said Nancy, adding, after a pause, "he smiles on the just, and he frowns on the unjust." "What is your idea of the Devil?" "He's meesable, he's meesable." "Well, what does he look like?" "Well, the Devil has got such a disagree-able look that it's out of my power to tell how he do look. He drags his tail, too, oh, its so disagreeable. He looks naturally; sometimes like a man, sometimes like a beast." "Well Nancy what do you think about baptism?" "Its one of Gods commandments. He say if we neglect one commandment, we neglect all." "Do you think no one will be saved who is not baptized?" "It is the pure in heart what see God," said Nancy. Oh how charming Nancy is! I really love to be ruled by her. She is motherly, kind, fond as one's aunt, and indulgent as a grandma.

Sarah and I are very happy here, happy enough to say many times that we are very happy.

Sarah wrote a little letter full of enthusiasm two weeks or more ago but it did not get into an envelope. To be in at the birth! is it not something to rejoice in? Great plans that are not yet afoot but are creeping into strength and promise spring daily, from the Dr's brain, shining with the prestige of success of their antecedents. It is certainly very good for us to be here. Men selected for farming came into the office today, all eager to work, and all expressing strongly their desire to have their families accompany them. "Well, Squire Nixon (the name the man gave as his own) do you wish to go upon a farm, to have for yourself half that you raise, and perhaps more?" said the Dr. "Yes suh, no more required suh than that suh." "Well Champion what do you say?" "I suppose when we get there, you'll let us have our families, like you said suh?" "Well Knowledge are you going?" "Yes, suh, that's my intention, exactly what I cum fir."

Some of the men, having recently arrived here from Norfolk, the Dr took their names ; their condition, before entering the army, occupation since, and amount of wages they have received from government. Two or three said they were free. "Well," said the Dr to one self-styled free-man "Why did you leave?" "Oh, I cum to look fer you all suh, when the others did suh." Cross-questioning showed that all were slaves. "I dont care about the work," said one man, "but I'm might afraid when you aint round they'll interfere with us and kill us." One or two of the carpenter's squad were sent for, but "I'd rather use tools, suh, if its left for me to decide, suh," promptly said the foreman, when the Dr put the chance in his way, at which all the others leaped. I have not told you that Uncle Sam slipped Craney Island into his pocket when he ran away from his mother, so you see we are really in the Old Dominion and not on rebel soil, after all. We are obliged, on Craney, to take a public journey every time we visit our private house—to put fairly out to sea. But, at such times, and at all times, I find myself ignoring the crowd. I am too busy, and every-body I pass is too busy to heed the concerns of others. We are as independent of our fellow-islanders as Broadway denizens are of each-other. But, when I go into the village ! I am abashed like a country-girl who thinks all Broadway staring at her. Pont think the village outlies our twelve acres. It lies in the rear of the house and the office. "Sounds from home" come to us at night in the tattoo at our gate (the head-quarters) and, in the morning, the reveille is sweeter than the storied lark when it bids us to rise. The oratorio of the creation cannot vie with the sunsets here ! Night after night, they glow like our warmest and most golden summer skies ! and a step gives us the whole horizon-circle ! Water too, all about us, and always about us! Water and sky —and around us work, work too which we love to do.

You all seem anxious about our health. I think we shall be well and strong here. Sarah, is, just now suffering somewhat from a cold, and I was hardly my best self for a few days, but we both believe that the climate will agree with us. Lo, on my first page rain-drops, from the roof when I sat writing at the parlor-table !

Ever lovingly, Lucy

No comments: