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

Post image for Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne.

Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne.

February 7, 2014

Letters and diary of Laura M. Towne

Aunt Rachel’s Village,

St. Helena, February 7, 1864.

Your nice long letter reached me only to-day. That is the worst of our living here, letters are very long getting to us and come by very uncertain hands, and we never know when a mail is going out. I have to trust to chance for getting our mail to Beaufort. So do not be alarmed if a vessel sails with no word from me, the next one will probably bring double.

I see by your letter that you are quite dissatisfied about my decision to stay till next summer, but I am sure that if you were here you would think as I do and advise my waiting. First place, the voyage. If I go this spring, I cannot ask transportation again in the fall, for our dear, good General is now having perpetual trouble and annoyances by having his passes discredited, or disapproved or complained of because they are so numerous. Yet he is very careful to give furloughs and passes only once a year except in cases of necessity or urgency. Even if I asked and obtained the two leaves of absence, I dread four sea voyages in six months or so. I think I must go home during the next unhealthy season. I cannot stand the trial of it here another year. I am not afraid of being sick myself, but of having to nurse and doctor those who are. I am quite sure that if I go North this spring and am seasick, as I cannot help being, it will make me run the risk of the autumn rather than of the voyage, and so I want to make sure of being away from this place through another such season as the last was. Besides, if I go now, I must run North in a hurry and come back before I have half seen you, my whole time being taken up with preparations for coming back here. But in the summer I will stay three months, have a thorough change and renovation, and have some leisure with you.

I am really ashamed and sorry about writing home for boxes and giving you all so much trouble, taking your time which is so overcrowded. I shall need some dresses in the spring, but there were very pretty things in Beaufort last year, and Susannah can make them up. If they are old-fashioned, no matter, for I shall only see you in the mountains, and down here I shall probably see less company than we used to. I suppose you thought me unconscionable in sending for carpets and household things, but this is my home probably for the rest of my days, and I want to be comfortable in it. I have lived now for two years in the midst of makeshift and discomfort, and have often thought this winter that even servants at home were more nicely provided with domestic conveniences and things to save time and trouble. So I sent for a few things of my own; that is, I wanted them taken from our house, and in the sale or division of our household goods, charged to my account — such as the carpet. Our room is nearly as ill-built and open as a rough country stable. H. ‘s stable is a palace to it, and, our only bit of carpet being on our parlor floor, we have bare boards in our rooms with the air rushing through every crack, and sunlight along every board plainly, visible where the sun shines under the house. This is comfortless and cold as you cannot imagine, who have not had uncarpeted floors since you can remember. When we first came here, and for a time, these things were endurable, but year after year it is hard to live so. Besides, now that things are taking a more permanent form here, everybody’s style of living is improving and we must do as others do. You know what South Carolina fare is. We are just in the oyster hole again, and have nothing else till we are sick of the sight of them. I was going to send home for butter, for we have had neither butter nor milk for some time — so much less than last year; but Mr. Buggles says he will supply us. We had a cow sent to us and were happy, but she was a jumper — and our fence such as you might expect — and she jumped and ran, after our feeding her for three days and getting just one- quart of milk. Her feed, too, was a heartbreak — we are not sure of it from day to day — none to be begged, borrowed or bought, so her escape was a relief.

Living is frightfully high and difficult. Butter — as rancid as possible, when it is to be had at all — is forty-five cents a pound; chickens not to be bought at any price generally, but now and then a tiny specimen for fifty cents; eggs, fifty cents a dozen. But even our rations are hard to get now that we have no gentleman in the house. As for safety, we do not need one. If you remember the village at all, you know Dr. Lukins and the church. Our house is the next one, and a call from our house would be heard even with windows down, by Mr. Lynch and Dr. Hunting. We never were so well protected by neighbors and helpers as now. We have an old man in the yard, to tend our horses and cow, cut our wood, etc., for four dollars a month; then Rina to do our cooking, washing, and housework for five dollars a month, and a girl for scrubbing, waiting on table, errands, fires, etc., for two dollars. This is much higher than before, but low as wages are going. Cooks get here enormous wages — from eight to forty dollars a month. The place is growing fast, and I suppose we shall soon come to Northern rates. It is amusing to see how the able-bodied workers are being coaxed and courted by the leasers of places, like Mr. Fairfield. There are not enough to cultivate the leased places, for it is to be hoped that every family will have its own land and find work enough on that. Except in Mr. Philbrick’s case,[1] white ownership or large owners proved unfortunate for the people last year.

We are getting very much interested in the villagers, particularly in the minister, a certain black or brown man who is certain to make his mark in the world. He is very eloquent and ambitious and makes a great stir in the department by his public speaking. He lives near us and his sister teaches in the school here. He often comes in of an evening, and the other day he found out to his intense horror that I was a Unitarian. But, though he says he expected better things of me, and various other things like that, he is really wonderfully liberal, and, as he will probably fall in with the right kind of people by reason of his eloquence and genius, he will one day perhaps be a Unitarian himself. There are a great many interesting people among these negroes, who are of a higher order than the plantation people.

To-day I have attempted yeast! We have had buckwheat cakes about three times this winter. Think of that, you who eat Mrs. Furness’ breakfasts, which make my mouth and eyes water every time I think of them. Buckwheat cakes spurred me on to the necessary effort, and I have a pot of yeast by the fire, which looks and smells as unlike Kitty’s as possible. Do ask her to tell me just how to make it. I have hops and can get potatoes by paying enormously. Are they necessary? — and does she put in molasses? I wish I had muffin rings and knew how Mrs. Furness makes muffins. How I want some of hers! You will think I am demented about eating, but so is everybody who does not know where to get the next meal. Pork and beans — our ration meats, I do not like, and all other kinds are very precarious.

I am sitting up past ten o’clock and so is Ellen — wicked ones that we are! Good night.

General Saxton is one of our best and truest-hearted men — great in his goodness. I am glad to get my General back.

[1] Mr. Philbrick was at first charged with trying to make a fortune out of the cotton raised by the freed negroes. The event proved that his business ability was of great service to the negroes, and his intentions philanthropic in the best sense.

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