Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

Letters and diary of Laura M. Towne

October 15,1865.

The people receive the rebels better than we expected, but the reason is that they believe Johnson[1] is going to put them in their old masters’ power again, and they feel that they must conciliate or be crushed. They no longer pray for the President — our President, as they used to call Lincoln — in the church. They keep an ominous silence and are very sad and troubled.

However, one of the best and most powerful of the old rebels returned awhile ago, and has been living in his old home on sufferance. His people all went to tell him “huddy,” and he was convinced of their toleration. So he told them he should get back his land and wanted to know how many would be willing to work for him for wages. They said none. “Why,” he said, “had n’t you as lief work for me as for these Yankees?” “No, sir,” they answered through their foreman; “even if you pay as well, sir, we had rather work for the Yankees who have been our friends.”

On the mainland it is so dangerous for a negro to go about, especially with the United States Uniform on, that orders are out that no more will be allowed to go to recover their families and bring them here as they have been doing. Some of the happiest reunions have come under our observation. But now people well-to-do here have to leave wives, old mothers, and children (sold away) to starve on the mainland, when they are anxious to bring them here and provide for them. It is not true that the negro soldiers do not behave well. Here, at least, they have always been patterns, as every commander of the post will testify. These stories about them are manufactured for a purpose.

[1] President Andrew Johnson.

September 1, 1865.

I am just contemplating taking a salary. The Committee have written to me about it again, and it will end, I suppose, by my doing it, though it will alter the aspect of things to me and drive me away, I think. Besides, I have now got the credit for being a volunteer, all over the country, and to sneak in for a salary seems too bad. I have had a very great deal of worry over it. If I could only afford to live without, I am sure it would be best policy, as well as best pleasure, to do it. But can I? … I suppose I must take for granted my inability to do without it, and so take the salary, for by all that I know of my means, this is the case.

Will[1] has had a very unpopular measure to carry — having the roads mended by voluntary labor, but the negroes turn out very well. He has most trouble with the white proprietors, who refuse to help, though they use the roads most. But through it all there is the best of feeling between the people and Will, and the respectable whites, Mr. Soule, etc., think a great deal of Will.

We hear reports and rumors that make us quake. It is that Beaufort and Hilton Head are to be closed as Government depots; that General Gillmore and General Saxton are going to live at Charleston; and this place is to be left alone in its glory. Misery! Already we have to send to Hilton Head for all our commissary stores — that is, for all we eat, except the little we can buy of the people, for there is no abatement in prices yet here, and we have to pay even at Ruggles’ twenty-five cents per pound for the coarsest of brown sugar, and the same for brown washing-soap. We teachers were to have the privilege of purchasing at the Commissary, and then the Commissary is removed so far we can’t get at it.

“Secesh” are coming back thick. One — Dr. Clarence Tripp — has half of Will’s house, another takes Dr. Hunting’s place, and lives on Ladies Island, flourishing on Government horses and saddles, for which he made a requisition on Will that Will was obliged to answer. They are crawlingly civil as yet, but will soon feel their oats.

[1] Miss Towne’s brother.

Sunday, August 3, 1865.

I am very contented and too busy to have any time for fretting. I teach four hours a day, and am busy turning out sheets and putting a square patch into the middle of all our pillow-cases. I shall have lots of sewing for the winter, so if you hear of a nice woman in the “special relief,” engage her for about Christmas time. I hope to go from here about the middle of December, get home a week before Xmas, and stay till the end of the first week in January, giving me three weeks at home, and allowing two for the journey, one going and one coming, and three days at each end for packing and unpacking, making my stay away from school duties just six weeks, and you must not tempt me to take more. I am having holiday now, remember.

The island is very quiet just now. There was no truth in the report of a military organization, rebellion, or anything of the kind. A few men united into a company to defend their watermelon patches, and once [when] they were going their rounds they met a young captain who has made himself very unpopular since he has lived on the island, and they refused to turn out for his buggy, obliging him to drive around them instead of standing aside for him to pass. He construed this into armed rebellion, and reported to General Gillmore just as the steamer was sailing for the North. There was no time to contradict the report, or investigate. Last Sunday Colonel Howard came over to tell the people that General Gillmore had ordered him to take away all their guns, but that he had just come into command of the post, and should not do it unless he saw some reason for so doing. These guns the people had bought themselves, and they have never done any serious mischief with them. Colonel H. told me that he thought the way to make them rebel was to do this, and he would not if he could help it. So the people do not parade, I believe, and all is very quiet and orderly. They all are very indignant at the supposition of their taking up arms against the Yankees and they say it is a “Secesh” trick to spread such a report and bring reproach upon them. Mr. Tomlinson came over and made a speech showing up Delany on the same day. Delany is the major who made that unwise speech a few Sundays ago and got the people so excited against Philbrick.

June 18, 1865.

My bell is safe at the school, and the carpenter has begun the belfry, which will be of the simplest description, as I shall pay for it myself. It will not cost over twenty-five dollars, all done and the bell hung. Mr. Tomlinson did offer to have the work charged to the Committee, but all their work was done and closed up, and I do not care about having this charged separately, as they might think it a useless appendage. We want to petition for a fence to our playground. We have proposed it once and been refused, as the estimate was too high, but we will strike for a cheaper fence this time. Our school does splendidly, though I say it. The children have read through a history of the United States and an easy physiology, and they know all the parts of speech, and can make sentences, being told to use a predicate, verb, and adverb, for instance. Ellen’s class is writing compositions. We are going to have a grand school exhibition before we close, with dialogues, exercises in mathematics, in grammar, geography, spelling, reading, etc., etc. We are cramming for it. Young Gabriel Capus has come back to his place, which was one reserved for the people. He warns them to buy no more of his land, as he shall soon have possession of it again! He went to his people, told them he had no money and nothing to eat, and begged them to let him stay with them. Old Rina took him in, and he lives in her house, but he begins already to show airs. Hastings and Rina are greatly exercised upon this question of the return of the old masters. Rina says that nothing could tempt her to go to “The Oaks” for a single day. There is no prospect of her going. She is very ill, scarcely able to walk across the floor, and I think there is little doubt about her having a cancer and that pretty far gone. But she still keeps up. We have to get our washing and ironing done by two women who come to the house, and we have for housework a nice little girl who seems very honest and capable. Did I tell you that little Katie, Hastings’ daughter, stole ever so many of my pretty precious stones? Took them to play with and lost them! She took also so many other things that we soon got rid of her, though we hated to do it, for the grief it would be to good faithful Hastings. He boards her now near our school so that she can come daily, and she promises to worry us well. We also have Harry’s daughters. Our school is the high school already, and we mean to make it more so.

[The next letter refers to the death of President Lincoln.]

Saturday, April 29, 1865.

… It was a frightful blow at first. The people have refused to believe he was dead. Last Sunday the black minister of Frogmore said that if they knew the President were dead they would mourn for him, but they could not think that was the truth, and they would wait and see. We are going to-morrow to hear what further they say. One man came for clothing and seemed very indifferent about them — different from most of the people. I expressed some surprise. “Oh,” he said, “I have lost a friend. I don’t care much now about anything.” “What friend?” I asked, not really thinking for a moment. “They call him Sam,” he said; “Uncle Sam, the best friend ever I had.” Another asked me in a whisper if it were true that the “Government was dead.” Rina says she can’t sleep for thinking how sorry she is to lose “Pa Linkum.” You know they call their elders in the church — or the particular one who converted and received them in — their spiritual father, and he has the most absolute power over them. These fathers are addressed with fear and awe as “Pa Marcus,” “Pa Demas,” etc. One man said to me, “Lincoln died for we, Christ died for we, and me believe him de same mans,” that is, they are the same person.

We dressed our school-house in what black we could get, and gave a shred of crape to some of our children, who wear it sacredly. Fanny’s bonnet supplied the whole school.


Village, St. Helena, S.C., April 23, 1865.

We did go to Charleston to that great celebration, and on the very day that vile assassin was doing his work, or had accomplished it.[1] Such shouts and cheers went up for Lincoln from the freed people of Charleston, at the mention of his name by Garrison at the great meeting in Zion Church, that it must have done him good even in his death. I never saw such enthusiasm as they showed every time he was mentioned. On the island here they are inconsolable and will not believe he is dead. In the church this morning they prayed for him as wounded but still alive, and said that he was their Saviour — that Christ saved them from sin, and he from “Secesh,” and as for the vile Judas who had lifted his hand against him, they prayed the Lord the whirlwind would carry him away, and that he would melt as wax in the fervent heat, and be driven forever from before the Lord. Was n’t it the cunning of the Devil that did the deed; and they are going to prove him insane! When he was wise enough to strike the one in whom all could trust, and whose death would inevitably throw confusion and doubt into the popular mind of the North! And then to single out Seward[2] in hopes that the next Secretary might embroil us with Europe and so give them another chance! It is so hard to wait a week or two before we know what comes next.

But I must tell you of our trip to Charleston. General Saxton gave us all passes, and a large party of teachers went from this island with Mr. Ruggles — good, kind, handsome fellow — to escort us. We stayed at a house kept by the former servants or slaves of Governor Aiken.

I was dreadfully seasick going up, and the day after I got there had to go to bed, and so I missed seeing many things I should have liked to visit. It stood — the house we stayed at — in the very heart of the shelled part of the city, and had ever so many balls through it. The burnt part of the town is the picture of desolation, and the detested “old sugar-house,” as the workhouse was called, looks like a giant in his lair. It was where all the slaves were whipped, and the whipping-room was made with double walls filled in with sand so that the cries could not be heard in the street. The treadmill and all kinds of tortures were inflicted there. I wanted to make sure of the building and asked an old black woman if that was the old sugar-house. “Dat’s it,” she said, “but it’s all played out now.” On Friday we went to Sumter, got good seats in the amphitheatre inside, near the pavilion for the speakers, and had a good opportunity to see all. I think there was not that enthusiasm in Anderson that I expected, and Henry Ward Beecher addressed himself to the “citizens of Charleston,” when there were not a dozen there. He spoke very much by note, and quite without fire.

At Sumter I bought several photographs, and send you one of the face [of the fortress] farthest from Wagner, Gregg, and our assailing forts, and consequently pretty well preserved. The other side is a mass of ruins and big balls. If you look closely you will see rows of basket-work, filled with sand, repairing a break. The whole inside of the fort is lined with them.

The next day was the grand day, however, when Wilson, Garrison, Thompson, Kelly, Tilton, and others spoke. Redpath mentioned John Brown’s name, and asked the great congregation to sing his favorite hymn, “Blow ye the Trumpet,” or “Year of Jubilee.”

I spoke to Judge Kelly afterwards and had a nice promise from him that he would send me all his speeches. We came home on Sunday and found all the missing boxes arrived, — or nearly all, — among them, mine. You do not know how intensely we all enjoy your picture — that exquisite sea-view. How could you spare me such a picture! I lie down on our sofa which faces it, and do so heartily enter into the freshness of it that it is refreshing in this hot weather. Many thanks to you.

[1] Abraham Lincoln was assassinated April 14, 1865.

[2] An attempt was also made to assassinate Secretary of State Seward.

Charleston, S.C., April 14,1865.

I have seen the same old flag raised on Sumter by General Anderson himself,[1] Garrison,[2] George Thompson, Tilton, Beecher,[3] and a host of abolitionists being present. It was a most beautiful and glorious sight. . . .

[1] The United States flag was raised on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 14, 1865, by General Robert Anderson, who had been compelled to surrender the same fort four years before.

[2] William Lloyd Garrison.

[3] Henry Ward Beecher.

Village, St. Helena, March 12, 1865.

I am sorry to tell you that our island is going to lose that good and useful man Mr. Tomlinson. He is to live in Beaufort,[1] and many a want of ours will be unsupplied after this. He offered to turn over to me “Big Charley” the horse, instead of our little Charley, but I would n’t listen to it, for “Big Charley” is a large, fine-spirited Northern horse, who has run away several times and smashed several buggies. Mr. T. is indignant at our little balking beast, who acted like a veritable ass the other day when Fanny was riding him, and ended by shaking her off his back. If she had known anything of him, or of any horse, it would not have happened. She was not hurt at all, and was well laughed at. Saxby and the calf grow splendidly, and all our animals are in fine condition, as we have been buying moss, marsh grass, and hay, at frightful prices — the former to help the people from Georgia, and the latter to save our beasts’ lives. It would make you groan to see what I call “fine condition.” You can count every rib in every animal we have got, but they can keep on their feet and go.

It has been the longest storm I ever knew down here — nothing but rain, rain, till the island is almost submerged. The Georgia people are smart, busy, and clean, but they have been used to much better living than our islanders, and being nearly reduced to starvation, for the want of rations, which were stopped by want of the means of transportation (coal for the steamers), they have not resisted the temptation of stealing whatever was eatable. Rina’s chickens have suffered. She says, “When der’s no men-folks in de family, it’s pure destruction.” And I believe we should find it so in our housekeeping, if it were not for Mr. Ruggles, Mr. Tomlinson, and others. The Edisto people having gone from the village and carried all their chickens, pigs, etc., we were for a time reduced to salt food entirely. The consequence was that Rina and Ellen both got the scurvy in a slight degree. It was trying enough for a week, — indeed, for three or four weeks, — but for one week they were almost laid up. We resorted to canned tomatoes and Irish potatoes, which Mr. Ruggles has now for sale, and we are all better.

The delicious blackberry season is almost here — they are in bloom. Peach trees are out, and plum trees. The gardens are gay with jonquils and “daffies,” and the jessamine is nearly in full bloom.

The bell — when will that come? A golden opportunity will be gone if it does not come this week! Our schoolhouse is being shingled now, and if the Government carpenter goes we shall probably have to pay for it, or I shall. It is my affair.

[1] Mr. Tomlinson took the place of Captain Hooper on General Saxton’s staff. He was also made State Superintendent of Education.

St. Helena Village, S.C., March 3, 1865.

I just scribble a note to thank you all, tell you I am well, and that I am, as you suppose, busy distributing to the refugees. We clothed about one hundred almost naked and entirely filthy people, who had had no change of clothing for months, and who had generally been very ill. Then the supply stopped. There arrived just five boxes and a barrel for me, and these we gave. But no other boxes have come since, and the people come to our yard and stand mute in their misery, not annoying me with questions, but just watching me to see if I have any news of the coming clothing for them. There some of them stand nearly every morning when I go to school, and there they are when we come home. I believe there are some boxes for me and many for Mr. Tomlinson at the Head, but the storm, we suppose, has cut off the supply of coal, and the steamers cannot bring them up. For the same reason no rations could be brought up for them, and there has been something very like starvation here. I have, fortunately, had some money of Mr. Wright’s, and I have bought rice from Mr. Ruggles, and to avoid actually giving to beggars, have only supplied such as Hastings designated as starving, except in a few cases where we had personal knowledge of the people. I think the little grits and rice we have given have kept soul and body together more than once. They have found out that we will buy moss from the trees for our cow who, stupid beast, will not eat hay.

I am elected superintendent of the Philadelphia schools and agent for the Pennsylvania Freedmen’s Relief Association down here.

My box has not come, nor the schooner been heard of. This stormy weather has kept it out, I suspect. Thank H. for both drafts.

What a pleasure my life is!

Sunday, February 19, 1865.

Two boxes of clothing have reached this house and four more are at the ferry, so next week distributing will begin again. I am going to give up my class for a week, and do it up systematically. It can be done now much better than at first, for then it was hard to tell who were needy and who were not, but now we know that all are alike in poverty, or nearly alike. Some have already begun to work, but with all such the rations are to be stopped next week, and while they have themselves to feed at the present low rate of wages and high prices of provisions, they will find it impossible to get clothes. The terrible sickness and mortality among those in this village is much less now that the severe cold weather is over. Government gave each family a blanket or two, but that was bed covering and all in one, so I really think many actually died from cold and others have severe coughs that I do not think they will ever recover from. Nearly all who are ill take the dropsy as they get better, and so go walking about as usual, till their lungs fill, and then they take to the floor and die in a day or so. Nearly all the children are dead, or a very large proportion of them. Our Mary Ann would persist in taking all sorts of things and eating while she had severe diarrhœa, such wholesome cribbings as raw peanuts, cracklings from salt pork, half-raw sweet potatoes, etc., etc. So we asked her cousin — her sole remaining relative — if she did not want the child back. We could not watch her closely enough. The cousin said yes, so we gave Mary Ann two suits of clothing and took her to a comfortable house where her cousin was living, she having lost her child, — a little boy two years old, — and left the hospital. Mary Ann was much better when she left — able to “pick chips,” and to walk about as she liked.

Some changes are taking place here among our friends. Mr. Hunn is going to Edisto, and a Tax Commissioners’ teacher is to be put on Frogmore in Miss Hunn’s school. So the Murrays are going to move to “The Oaks.” Mr. Ruggles has leased that place for four years and has given them the use of his half of the house. The other half goes for school-farm teachers. Fanny declares she will not go to that unhealthy place and is coming to stay with us awhile.

We have grand rumors to-night — that Charleston is evacuated,[1] but we can’t believe it yet. I am astonished at the gammon still prevailing at the North about our Southern brethren, and their softened feelings and longings to come back, etc., etc. They are hungry, and long for loaves and fishes, but a gentleman who has just come from Savannah says they are bitter and spiteful and “cantankerous” as ever, and show extreme contempt for the Northerners while they are accepting their benefactions. This gentleman was the secretary or president of the old pro-slavery Home Mission Society of Presbyterians, and he has always stood up for our erring but darling Southern brothers. If he speaks against them he speaks against himself, for the past twenty years, and yet he does say that Northern sympathy is wasted on them.

Old Pittsburg is doing well, is n’t she? I do not know how many boxes have come to me from there or from their funds. They seem, by their letters, to recognize that I am John Towne’s daughter.

[1] General Sherman entered Charleston without resistance on February 18, 1865.