The following article, by Terry L. Meyers, is reprinted (slightly revised), with permission from The Virginia Gazette, October 20, 2004, p. 1C.

Forgotten History

by Terry L. Meyers

Renewed interest in the 1862 Battle of Williamsburg, buoyed by efforts to preserve remnants of the battlefield, offers a timely frame for an overlooked account of Williamsburg and local freed slaves just after the Civil War. Tom MacMahon, a leader of the battleground preservationists, recently brought to my attention "A Woman's Life-Work," the 1881 autobiography of the indefatigable abolitionist Laura Smith Haviland.

After several months in Richmond in 1866, the nearly 60-year-old Haviland traveled to the Peninsula as an agent of the Freedmen's Aid Commission to work among the newly freed slaves in Williamsburg, Yorktown and Gloucester.

Haviland's 16-page account has to be read with some skepticism. Her descriptions of Williamsburg are wrong in some details. And I am somewhat disbelieving about the tales she passes on from newly freed slaves. They seem to have lived amazingly long lives and had astounding numbers of siblings and children, all sold down the river. Nevertheless, allowing for exaggeration by Haviland or by her subjects, the stories hint at the horrors local blacks suffered.

Laura S. Haviland, from
A Woman's Life-Work (1881).

On March 3, 1866 Haviland sailed to Jamestown, noting along the James River "many little hillocks where were buried the fallen soldiers who left their northern homes with high hopes of saving the nation's life from the hand of treason."

At Jamestown Church, Haviland "saw a piece of a marble slab from the graveyard dated 1626, broken in pieces by soldiers for relics" and then was driven by an ambulance driver to Williamsburg. Here she saw the statue of Lord Botetourt temporarily placed at the front of the asylum. Touring the hospital she heard "a very sweet voice singing a hymn" and was told, "'Mr. Scott is singing for you. He is General Winfield Scott's nephew. He bet both of his plantations that the Confederates would succeed in this war, and when Richmond fell he became insane and was brought here two weeks ago.'"

Haviland was particularly struck by the freed slaves' thirst for education. She mentions visits in Williamsburg to "old slave-pens" where schools were held and "an old brick church in which was a colored school of one hundred and ninety-six scholars, taught by Miss Barton, of Connecticut, and a gentleman from Michigan."

At Fort Magruder she visited a colored school of 158 members, taught by Maggie Thorpe and Martha Haines, of New York, under the auspices of the Society of Friends. To accommodate men and women who could not leave their work during the day, they opened a night school, and had 50 in that class. Half of these did not know their letters when school opened in February, and could then read quite fluently in the second and third readers. A few miles further there was another school of 30 scholars who had made commendable progress.

Margaret Thorpe herself describes teaching at Fort Magruder in an account published by William & Mary historian Richard L. Morton in 1956 in "The Virginia Magazine of History & Biography." Her narrative details the dedication of teachers and pupils under difficult conditions in an impoverished town hostile to Yankees and to educating blacks. Already the Ku Klux Klan was locally active.

Hearing from the teachers at Fort Magruder that great numbers of blacks were suffering at a Kingsmill plantation (also described by Thorpe), Haviland took clothing and bedding to 27 freed slaves, aged 60 to more than 100, and recorded some of their stories.

The oldest, Uncle Bob Jones, a blind man who believed he was 105, had been owned by a Master Moses, and as a youth had laboriously helped clear acres of beeches, maples, and linns, then helped to work the land to its depletion. He lived to see the replacement pines logged. He had married his wife, Milla, when both were very young; they had many children, all sold and gone.

Haviland noted that although 103 years old, Aunt Milla could see to do considerable work in their little garden patch, that some of the younger men among them had spaded for her. Every thing about their little cabin was neat and clean, and their clothes were well patched. Uncle Bob had been off this plantation but twice in his life; then he went to Williamsburg. It was affecting to see these old, worn-out slaves rejoicing over freedom.

Still at Kingsmill, Haviland was taken "to the old brick mill that was the first one built in that country, they said more than a hundred and 50 years ago." She met one of the two men living there, "an intelligent mulatto man of about sixty years," supposedly the only single child among 13 sets of twins, all sold south to slave-dealers. His tale is moving - he was kept from his dying mother (Maria Sampson), separated from his wife and children, and having earlier served in the army had not received from his owner the freedom promised him.

Haviland's next visit was to "an old brick kitchen," perhaps the one still surviving at the site of Kingsmill Plantation.

In the "loft" lived two aged sisters of 75 and 80, whose youngest brother, about 60, was insane. His sisters said about 20 years earlier he "lost his mind." His wife and children were all sold from him down the river, and he grieved so long over it, he lost his mind, and never came right since.

As Haviland went up the stairs, the brother "danced to and fro, slapping his hands, 'Glory, hallelujah to the Lamb!'" "'Don't mind him,'" his sisters explained to Haviland, "'he has no mind, and is rejoicin' to see a white woman come up these stairs, for it's a new thing. I reckon there hain't been a white woman up here more'n twenty year, an' he don't know how to tell his gladness.'"

Haviland was told in Kingsmill a perhaps unconvincing story of "many cruel over-seers, that would take the life of a slave, to get their names up as 'boss overseers.'" When she intimated that she heard of such overseers themselves being murdered by those they oversaw, "one old man dropped his head, then looking up said, in a hesitating manner, 'I's knowed that in my time, but massar keep it mighty still, an' say de overseer runned away, an' he git one right soon agin.'" Before leaving Williamsburg, Haviland recorded the inscriptions on several of the tombstones at Bruton Parish Church. She then visited Yorktown and Gloucester, describing several schools there and taking down the stories told by a number of freed slaves: * Dilla; Aunt Sally, previously owned by a Mrs. Pendleton, supposedly "the daughter of ex-President Taylor" and "a hard mistress." * William and Phillis Davis * Eva Mercer * David Cary * Pross Tabb * Susan Monroe, just 8 years old and newly baptized. These stories are too long to summarize, but Haviland concludes her visit to our area with one that captures some of the cruelty of slavery:

A young girl went to a night meeting contrary to orders, and for so doing was stripped naked and whipped in the presence of the other slaves, the master himself plying the lash. While she cried for mercy her master replied, "I'll give you mercy."

"Good Lord do come and help me." "Yes, I'll help you" (and kept plying the lash). "Do, Lord, come now; if you ha'n't time send Jesus." "Yes, I'm your Jesus," retorted the inhuman persecutor, and he continued to ply the lash until thirty strokes were well laid on.

Haviland's recording such local horrors reminds us that slavery andthe Civil War ending it are intimately connected to the political thinking, tragically incomplete, that developed from 18th century Williamsburg.

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