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

Letters and diary of Laura M. Towne

St. Helenaville, Thursday, January 26, 1865.

We are often put to it for forage, and being distressingly short, we got into the way of turning our beasts out to pick brush. They often went to the marsh for the salt grass, but we hoped for the best. One night this week when it was pouring rain, it was discovered that the horses had not come up. I sent a boy after them. He went, and not finding them, went quietly home, not letting me know. Brister had been away, but after I knew he had been home a long time, I went to his house and asked him if he had been for the horses. “No.” They never go for the animals in rainy weather. I started Brister and the boy both after the horses, charging them to look in the bog first, and tell me when they found them. An hour or two after, I got uneasy and went to Brister’s house again. There he and the boy sat, and informed me, or rather let me stormily guess, that Betty was in the bog. The way they did it was by assuring me that Charley and Saxby were not “bogged.” I had the nice kerosene lantern I bought at the fair, and we all set out together, for I was sure that at the least discouragement they would turn back, and the tide coming up, Betty would be dead by morning. I was equipped for the weather, but had rubber shoes — if they had only been boots! We found poor Betty worn out with her struggles, and though we got her twice to her feet, the first step forward she sank to her shoulder again, or else a hind leg would go down. I think Brister and Harry would have tried “licking” her up, and letting her sink till the tide drove them off and drowned her, but I insisted upon Brister’s going for more men, which he did at last. Then Betty was thrown on her side, her hind legs tied together and she was hauled to firm ground. While Brister went for the men we were doing our best — the two boys and I — to get Betty up and out, but she only got up and tumbled down again. The next day she was stiff, but pretty well, and I went to school.

It was so cold this morning that there was ice made while the bucket was being drawn up from the well. Of course there was ice in our basins and pitchers. As this is almost the first time I have had to stay away from school since I have been down here, the schoolchildren went home with open-mouthed wonder, “Miss Towne de sick,” having given Fanny, who took my class, all the trouble they could. I think I shall let it go to-morrow (Friday) and I hope by Monday to have hearing enough to go back to it. Fanny is spending a week with us, her first visit. Great changes are taking place. Edisto is to be reoccupied and that takes Mr. John Alden, one of our best friends, away — he is to be General Superintendent. Then Mr. Tomlinson is made Inspector General of Freedmen’s affairs and goes to Beaufort. Mr. Williams[1] is to be our General Superintendent. So we are, as usual, in an upside-down state. The poor negroes die as fast as ever. The children are all emaciated to the last degree, and have such violent coughs and dysenteries that few survive. It is frightful to see such suffering among children. Our little waif is almost well, but is a sulky, lazy, vicious little piece. We shall not keep her any longer than we can help. Her cousin is still in the hospital and will take her, when she comes out, to “mind child.” Most of our good people and children are going back to Edisto. We lose Hastings, our mainstay here, Brister, Clarissa, and ever so many of our brightest scholars.

[1] C. F. Williams.


St. Helenaville, S.C., Saturday, January 21, 1865.

I have not had time to write even a word to you for ever so long. Don’t imagine that I have time to play wolf, as I used to, either. It is one “demnition grind” lately. It seems as if Rina, Brister, and Clarissa are all possessed, and we have all sorts of household difficulties arising daily. Besides our usual work we have now a little care of the poor refugees from Georgia, who are frightfully destitute, sickly, and miserable. Most of them are homesick too. They expected to stay and enjoy their freedom in Savannah, or their back-country homes in Georgia, and they pine in this uncomfortable and strange place, where they die so fast. They are separated too. Parents are looking for lost children and there are waifs of children without a friend, who have drifted here somehow, and who are so forlorn and dejected and emaciated that it is hard to see them. We have taken one of them home here, but shall not keep her after she is well, for she has a cousin willing to have her, as she is old enough to “mind child.” The child had typhoid pneumonia when we took her from the hospital where her mother and brother and one aunt died, and another is just dying; so she is almost friendless, and too small to be very useful to any one. The refugees are going to Edisto soon. Thereby hangs great news.

Stanton[1] came down here to inquire into various matters, among others the abuses of the recruiting. A letter that Harriet Murray wrote to a friend was published in the Springfield Republican and copied from that into other papers. It excited great indignation, as it told just what we heard and saw the first night we arrived — when two men in Frogmore had been shot down, one killed, the other mortally wounded, by recruiting officers, because they, having exemption papers in their pockets, refused to come from their boat when they were fishing, when the recruiting officers called them. This letter of Harriet’s was sent to General Foster[2] with a demand for an explanation. Stanton made inquiries and found, what we knew, that such things were not uncommon, but that men were seized, their bounty appropriated, and themselves sent to Morris Island, without being allowed to return to tell their families where they were going. Stanton also inquired into other matters, and the result was that he or Sherman made General Saxton a Brevet Major-General. So, direct your letters accordingly, to the care of Major-General Saxton. He has full power over Freedmen’s affairs from Edisto to Key West, thirty miles inland, and is going to take home at once all the Edisto people. Mr. Tomlinson is to be head man under Saxton, Mr. Williams to be General Superintendent of St. Helena, and Mr. John Alden, we hope, of Edisto. This will make great changes. We shall lose many of our brightest scholars.

How we do enjoy our new school-house. It is so delightful to have quiet, and the desks are wonderfully convenient. General Howard[3] and General Saxton came to see us and praised us much.

A steamer is just in and brings us news that Wilmington is ours, but with great loss. I have heard no particulars.

You sent me Mr. Furness’ sermon, and I enjoyed with trembling the eulogy of teachers, though I believe the praise was confined to those at Washington. By the way, there will be an opening for Miss Bridport almost certainly at Edisto, if not here, but I think I have secured a charming place for her — if she does not mind “messing” with a colored lady teacher from the North, as of course she will not. She will also have only a primary department to begin with, but will be next door to us, in the healthiest location on the island, and have immediate and full employment. I wish she were here now. Be sure to tell her to bring with her bedroom and kitchen conveniences and comforts of all kinds — bedding, sheets, blankets, pillow-cases, towels, and a ticking for a straw bed, or, what is much better, a thin, narrow mattress like mine, and a pillow. This bedding is indispensable. She will find a good house and some furniture here, and need not bring a bedstead. If she should not come, some other nice teacher from Philadelphia might take her place.

[1] Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War.

[2] Major-General John G. Foster.

[3] Major-General Oliver O. Howard succeeded General Foster.

St. Helenaville, January 8, 1865.

I have a great and troublesome commission for some of you. When H. gave me the one hundred dollars last fall, I instantly thought, “Now I can get my bell,” but afterwards I was afraid I might need funds to finish the inside of our school-house and so I deferred getting the bell. Now it is all finished nicely, everything we want complete, and we have had two days of delightful comfort in it. While Mr. Tomlinson is here, I can get the belfry put up free of charge, and properly attended to. He talks of going away soon, and has said he wished the bell, which I promised, had come. So I want you to buy me one.

Miss Ware has bought a bell for her school-house, and it came down in one of the Philbrick schooners. It rings already all over the island. She has also presented her school-house with an eight-day clock. Her bell is smaller than mine must be, for she calls only one plantation, and we five or six to school. They say it is exquisite in tone. There is great choice in bells of the same size and apparent quality; one will ring clearly and be heard at a great distance, while another will be soft and sweet and deep, but not resonant, and the sound will not travel far. A dollar a pound is the price, or was the price of Miss Ware’s. It will take at least a fifty-pound bell and may take a larger one. You had better ask how far such a bell carries sound. Ours should be heard three miles if possible. Miss Ware calculated that a twenty-five pound bell would be heard a mile and a half. Our children come from five and six miles, but I think no bell could be heard so far. I suppose that the wheel for ringing it comes with it — that and a rope would be necessary. Our building is one story high and raised on piles. We should want a rope to go through the floor and be pulled from beneath.

I think you can get a chance to send the bell by Mr. Winsor’s schooners, which are coming often for cotton. I had rather have freight paid on it than have it come by Mr. Philbrick’s favor. If it cannot come by schooner, I think the Philadelphia Committee would get the New York Committee to forward it.

Another great crowd of negroes has come from Sherman’s army. They are utterly wretched in circumstances — clothes all torn to rags; in some cases children naked. A steamboat load came to the village to-night, and they are crowded in the church and into all the people’s houses. It is astonishing with what open-hearted charity the people here — themselves refugees from Edisto two years ago — have received these newcomers right into their houses, and to that most jealously guarded place — their “chimbly.” A “chimbly” here is a man’s castle, and the privileges of this coveted convenience are held sacred. To lend a “chimbly” to a neighbor is to grant him a great favor, yet these people are welcomed to the “chimblys.” I asked our Brister if he found any friends among the refugees from Georgia. “All friends to-night,” he said, “but I hain’t found no family,” which means relatives.

Pierce Butler’s slaves have just arrived among this lot. We have no clothes to give these poor shivering creatures, and I never felt so helpless. Rina has on her biggest pot and I have just been putting in some of Mr. Wright’s tea, and Ellen and I are going to sally out and give each of the sick a cup of it to warm them up this cold, raw night. Very many come sick: indeed, nearly all are broken down with fatigue, privation of food, and bad air at night.

To-day General Saxton at church announced his intention to reoccupy Edisto pretty soon and fill it with these refugees. . . .

10.45 P.M.

Just returned from giving out the tea to the sick. Such a weary, sick, coughing set! I wish our church would send along some clothes. I have written to the Commission for some, and contributions to their boxes would do.

Christmas, 1864, Village, St. Helena, S.C.

I am not so homesick this year as I was last, but yet how good it would be to look in awhile and see you all well and happy together. It is a cold, dull day here. We meant to go to church, but it rained just about the time we should have set out, and so we are quietly resting at home.

To-morrow we have the celebration for our school. I present my pocketbooks. Ellen gives each girl of her class a nice little workbox with needlebook, pincushion, thread, buttons, scissors, and thimble. Each boy she gives a comb and a knife. Harriet and Fanny have a variety for their classes, and in all about two hundred and fifty children will, we hope, have some pleasure in the day.

I have not had much preparation to make here, Our new school-house is not ready for the Xmas celebration, but we hope we have taught for the last day in the church, as we expect to begin school, after this week’s holiday, in the new building. Four classes going at once at the pitch of their lungs made confusion worse confounded.

Yesterday I baked a batch of gingercakes and to-day we have given two or so to all the children in our “yard,” and to a few others. We made the old African woman’s heart glad by a little tea and sugar, and a warm shawl from Mr. Wright’s store. You do not know what a fine, dignified old thing she can be. To-day her daughter came in bringing two quarts of groundnuts and a dozen big sweet potatoes — “Manners” on Christmas, the daughter said. She is a strapping, middle-aged woman. Mother Katie has a strange history and is over a hundred years old, but bright mentally as if she were but forty. She is blind and suffers horribly with her eyes.


Miss Lynch and a colored teacher from the North, Mr. Freeman, dined here and seemed well satisfied. They have just gone. I suppose it would seem strange to you to sit down with two colored people, but to us it is the most natural thing in the world. I actually forget these people are black, and it is only when I see them at a distance and cannot recognize their features that I remember it. The conversation at dinner flowed just as naturally as if we were Northern whites. Both Mr. Freeman and Miss Lynch have education and talk well. General Sherman at Hilton Head received General Saxton with flattering honor, and General Foster more coolly. General Sherman is quartered in Savannah.[1] That evacuation is a blessing if it leaves the country as this has been left, for freedmen under Northern influence. I wish the Southerners would all evacuate their whole territory.

[1] General Sherman had succeeded in reaching Savannah on December 22, 1864, after marching two hundred and fifty miles from Atlanta to the sea.

December 18,1864.

Merry Christmas to all.

Our new school-house is now being hurried forward pretty fast, and we hope to get in by the first of the year. How happy we shall be, nobody can tell who has not taught in a school where he or she had to make herself heard over three other classes reciting in concert, and to discover talkers and idlers among fifty scholars while one hundred and fifty more are shouting lessons, and three other teachers bawling admonitions, instructions, and reproofs. Generally two or more of the babies are squalling from disinclination to remain five hours foodless on very small and tippy laps — their nurses being on benches too high for them and rather careless of infant comfort in their zeal for knowledge. . . . Oh, dear, I am away off! To think of being able to hear directly all these good and stirring things! Phillips Brooks is a fine war-horse, is n’t he? He does n’t seem to be getting spoiled.

I went to-day to see Maum Katie, an old African woman, who remembers worshipping her own gods in Africa, but who has been nearly a century in this country. She is very bright and talkative, and is a great “spiritual mother,” a fortune-teller, or rather prophetess, and a woman of tremendous influence over her spiritual children. I am going to cultivate her acquaintance. I have been sending her medicine for a year nearly, and she “hangs upon top me,” refusing all medicine but mine. I never saw her till to-day, and she lives not a stone’s throw off, so you may guess how hurried I am.

Sunday, December 11,1864.

To-morrow I am going to “The Oaks.” I hear that Aunt Phyllis is dying and I shall go to see her and take her some sugar. … It is piping cold to-night — blowing great guns, but Rina made us up a splendid fire and we sit enjoying it and enjoying, too, writing home. . .

The people come very often for us to write letters for them and we have fun doing it. One woman for whom Fanny Murray was writing requested her to end the letter by saying, “Please excuse the writing, for my pen is very bad.”

The letters reach us very late and the papers and magazines later still, but I hope to get them, and we generally do, in time.


St. Helenaville, December 5, 1864.

The side-saddle was marked distinctly “Miss Ellen Murray,” and I never received any notification that any one intended it for my use. I do use it, however, as much as I want to, and have lately had a ride to school. Ellen often rides. She tried Betty the other day and found her an easy trotter. Our horse feed costs us almost as much as our own, but yet we enjoy and need the two horses, for neither can stand the work alone.

I have been having a nice visit from Louise Kellogg. She has settled down in Mr. Sumner’s house and seems very well content. Her companion is a Miss Lee, of Boston.

I am more than ever in love with school-teaching, and a solitary carpenter came to-day to take the measurements for more seats in our new school-house, so we hope some day to get into it.

An expedition has gone from here to Pocotaligo again, and Grahamville has been taken, we hear. We see a a great column of smoke to the north, and we know that hundreds of wounded men are coming to Beaufort. We met a pleasant gentleman at Coffin Point last Sunday — a Captain Crane,[1] and to-day we hear he is dead. Rina’s Jack Brown died in hospital some time ago and Rina feels it very much. Did I ever tell you how pleased she was with your flounced dress? I gave Elizabeth a bit of crape and one of Mr. Wright’s shawls that was black and purple, and it consoled her. She was so crazy in the summer that she had to be put into the jail for safety. Elizabeth, you remember, is Rina’s daughter and Jack Brown’s wife. She is the only child Rina ever had.

[1] Of the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Volunteers (colored). He was killed in the engagement at Honey Hill, near Grahamville, South Carolina, fought November 30, 1864.

Thursday, November 17, 1864.

I am getting my South Carolina health back — eat like a horse, sleep like a top, do any amount of work, and read nothing; that last is too bad and greatly to my regret. We have begun reading in the carriage on our way to school.

The weather is exquisite, the school flourishing, household matters comfortable, living good, and all things smooth at present. We are not yet in our new schoolhouse, for the Government carpenter, Mr. Wilson, has to let his hands literally fish for themselves, as the quartermaster has no money to pay for six months’ work back, and they need a subsistence. So we have to wait for seats for our scholars, and other finishings. We have a very large school and a charming time in it. Just think, you poor, freezing, wind-pierced mortals! we have summer weather. The fields are gay with white, purple, and yellow flowers, and with the red leaves of sumach and other shrubs. Our woods are always green, and just now the gum trees make them beautiful with red. You can’t see a leaf! Chill November! I pity you. But — but! — We are perfect recluses.

Ellen has gone to-night to Frogmore to see her friends and family and I miss her terribly. I think I get less and less used to doing without things — yet I am resolved to stick just here to my work. . . .

We are just enjoying my darling little stove, being able to eat our meals in comfort and without involuntary mastication from chattering teeth, for it has been too cold until within two days to do without fires in the dining-room, a luxury we never could have before. It, the stove, draws well. Our curtains are not yet up, and I begin to fear they will not decorate our windows all winter.

You do not know how snug and homelike our parlor looks — just large enough for two.

I wonder whether you will see Mr. Tomlinson in Philadelphia. He is still there and I hope you will meet him. He is to speak at some Freedmen’s Relief meeting, and I suppose you will hear him. If you do, be sure to tell me the drift of his remarks.

We are overjoyed at Lincoln’s victory, which reaches us in this fashion. He has all the states but three — Kentucky! New Jersey, and Tennessee. Is it so? There is beginning to be great talk here of leasing the school farms, and the Murrays may have to leave Frogmore. They have no idea where they will go. All is as uncertain as ever, but I do not trouble myself. The uncertainties down here all smooth themselves into very good order in time, and so I do not fear any serious vexations in the new school arrangements on the school farms.


St. Helena, Sunday Evening, October 23, 1864.

Last night there came a knock at the door, which I answered, and there, standing like an apparition, was Mr. Sumner, who came in and stayed until after breakfast to-day, evidently enjoying our Northern appearance, but being as funny and as cynical by turns as he always is. He is now a landed proprietor, or a planter, as he calls himself, and he takes a planter’s view of all things.

For some unexplained reason all of Mr. Philbrick’a superintendents, except Mr. Ruggles and Mr. Wills, are going away this winter. I shall probably find out the reason when I see Mr. Tomlinson. Some say it is because they disapprove of Mr. Philbrick’s management, others that he is not going to allow them a share of crop, but only a salary, and this they will not stay for. Some miserable “middle-men” overseers will come, it is likely, to take their places and soon we shall see this island in just such a state as Ireland is, with its absentee owners and lessees or managers to grind down the people.

To-day while we were at church General Saxton and Tilly came to see us, and when they heard that we had gone down to the Baptist church, they did not wait, but went away without seeing us. I am too sorry. It was very kind and very complimentary for General S. to come all the way over here for a call. It takes a whole day, and he has not so many leisure days that he can afford to spend them visiting in this fashion. He never does it, I may say, excepting this once or twice.

Rina is delighted at Tilly’s sending me by her any quantity of love and “respecks.” Rina is just as much of a jewel as ever, but she is very funny at times. Did I tell you of the death of little Friday? Kit, the boy who wears the blue roundabout and not another stitch, yet is so fully apparelled in his own estimation, — a little fellow of three, — came home one day saying repeatedly that “Fish carried Friday.” No one noticed his words till night, when Friday did not come home and it began to be feared that he had got into the creek. His body was found there after a few days. Kit had supposed him carried off by a fish, but he was probably “bogged.” Rina was lamenting his death; she “missed him too much. He was the bandy-leggedest little fellow most, that lived to de village, and she did love and look ‘pon top him.”

We began school in the church again last Wednesday and have had a full number of scholars, one hundred and ninety-four last Friday. They are generally good, and eager to come back, pretty quiet and inclined to study, but a few have grown rebellious and riotous, owing to peculiar surroundings. These I dismiss summarily until they come in more subdued. I enjoy the return to teaching highly and am quite returned to my usual good health and vigor. I think we shall find Fanny Murray a great assistance, for she comes steadily and does regular work. We hope soon to get into our new building,[1] which looks exceedingly pretty, but has not half seats enough in it, and wants other improvements.

Yesterday Uncle Robert and old Aunt Scilla, with her two children, came up in a cart to see us, and to-day at church all old friends and patients came up with greetings that did me good. The eggs and vegetables pour in in abundance and we live pretty well. We pay now for our milk ten cents a pint and are thankful.

[1] The school-house sent by the Freedmen’s Aid Society of Pennsylvania.

[Miss Towne spent a part of the summer of 1864 visiting her family in the North. The following letter was written from Pennsylvania.]

Wyndhurst, September 11, 1864.

. . . Our whole party is jubilant over the nomination of McClellan and his letter, for it is the certain division of his party. Two Democratic papers in New York — one the Daily News and another a Catholic paper — have come out against McClellan. The chances for Lincoln are now great, everybody says, and the good news from all sides makes everybody jubilant. But Grant is terribly threatened. . . .

I have seen the members of the Committee, and the whole of them in session several times. They sent Mr. McKim to Washington to remonstrate about the transportation, and he convinced Stanton that teachers ought not to pay it, so we are to be sent free again. . . .