John S. (John Sergeant) Wise.

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continuous line ; while the creek about the grove was liter
ally filled with small craft ranging from canoe to "pungy,"
and a steamboat had arrived from Norfolk with a great
company and a band of music. This band, playing in the
grove, was an endless source of wonder and delight to
many of the primitive people, who heard a brass band
that day for the first, and no doubt, in some instances,
the last time in their lives.


Within the house, father and mother held a long levee,
welcoming old friends, and stirred to their hearts depths
by the simple ovation of which they were the recipients.

Without, under the shade of the trees, hundreds of vis
itors, after paying their respects to the host and hostess,
walked or sat about and chatted with each other.

We may be sure that not the least theme of their con
versation was politics ; for not only was it in Virginia
where everybody talked politics everywhere, but it was
just at the period when Americans were carrying all
before them in Mexico, and the Whigs were about to
elect old " Rough-and-Ready," and snatch political con
trol from the Democracy. Nor was there lack of party
differences among the assembled guests, to give spice to
the discussions. Hot and heavy was the argument be
tween " Chatter Bill " Nottingham and "Monkey" John
son, as to which national party was entitled to the honors
for the American triumph in the Mexican war. Every
body had his nickname in these days.

Colonel Robert Poulson, the county representative in
the legislature, had his group around him, as, red in face
and solemn of mien, he ventilated his views on the best
method of protecting the Virginia oyster-beds from Mary
land poachers. Captain Stephen Hopkins, the largest
vessel-owner of the county, had his admiring coterie, who
insisted upon hearing his opinion, which he gave modestly,
as to the prospect of a rise in the price of corn in the
Baltimore market. Not far away, a noisy group of young
sters were bantering each other as to the respective merits
of two saucy centreboard skiffs that rode proudly near
the shore, and it was not long before a race between the
Southerner and the Sea-Gull was a fixed event of the

As the day wore on, and when the multitude had been


fed, a movement from the house to the grove indicated
that something important was about to occur. The host
and hostess and the distinguished guests moved out to an
improvised platform under the oaks, and there began the
formal ceremonies of welcome.

Colonel Joynes, the venerable county clerk, as of course,
called the gathering to order, when the stragglers had all
drawn near. Then came the introduction of a young
fellow from Hampton, afterwards somewhat known as a
poet, who read an original poem lauding Virginia and
her honored son. Then followed a brief address of wel
come from young Bell. And then father stood up, facing,
for the first time after years of absence, the people among
whom he was born ; the kin who had loved him from his
infancy; the constituency who bad made his brilliant
career possible ; the people who still had faith in him,
and had come so far to do him honor.

It was an impressive scene. Restraining himself, and
laboring under the deep emotion such interest in himself
was well calculated to arouse, he drew his audience to him
with the simple speech which the skilled orator so well
knows to be the most effective at the outset. Then, grad
ually warming up to his theme, he pictured the yearning
of his heart for these old scenes during his long exile in
foreign lands ; reviewed his work abroad in the interest
of humanity ; his desire to see the infamous slave trade
abolished ; his hope for some scheme by which the curse
of slavery might ultimately be removed without wrong to
the owner; his realization of the glorious work accom
plished by the Union arms in Mexico during his absence ;
his deep sense that, with restored health and the youth
remaining to him, there was still much of his life s work
before him ; his gratitude to God for this restoration to
his own people ; his deep emotion at this evidence of their


continued trust; and his abiding faith in their further
confidence in him. He concluded with a brilliant and
genuine tribute of affection for a constituency so true and
so confiding. His audience were wrought into a burst of
thunderous applause, which was renewed and renewed as
the band played, " Carry Me Back to Old Virginia."

The formal ceremonies over, the visitors gradually dis
persed, and quiet reigned once more at Only.

It is the death of that era a death which begun with
my birth, and was complete before I attained manhood
that is to be chronicled in the following pages.


THE autumn of 1850 brought an event freighted with
deep significance to me. My mother died. Although I
was but four years old, it made a profound impression,
and it exercised an incalculable influence upon my after
life. My mother was a Northern woman, daughter of
Hon. John Sergeant, a distinguished lawyer, and for
many years representative in Congress from Philadel
phia. Her people were of New England blood, identi
fied with the earliest and most important events of the
Plymouth Colony.

She had been taught to practice economy, simplicity,
and scrupulous neatness and order. She was deeply
religious, charitable, sympathetic, highly sentimental, and
withal ambitious. She was one of those beautiful, refined
creatures for which the City of Brotherly Love is famous.
Hers was one of those extraordinary natures whose physi
cal comeliness seems to make no injurious impression
upon loveliness of character. Indeed, both in herself and
with those about her, consideration of her appearance was
subordinated to appreciation of her moral and intellectual

It was seven years after her marriage before she fully
realized the vast difference between the life in which she
had been reared and that into which her marriage had
brought her. For, prior to their departure for Brazil,
father, being in Congress, had resided for the most part in


Washington, and had no fixed establishment in Virginia.
In Brazil, social conditions had been strange to herself
and husband alike. It was only on my father s return
from Brazil when the Virginia establishment was re
sumed that she realized the vastly altered terms of her
existence. It is fortunate it was so. It gave time for her
wifely love to become fixed and deepened beyond disturb
ance ; and residence in Brazil undoubtedly took away
the shock of slavery as it existed at home. Coming now
to a knowledge of Virginia slavery, it was much less re
pulsive than it would have been if she had been trans
planted direct from Philadelphia. Notwithstanding this
gradual change, the contrast was strong enough to make
her fully realize the difference between the duties and the
pleasures of her new home and those to which she had
been accustomed in girlhood. Of the society about her,
she had nothing to complain. The good old people were
of excellent social position, and Philadelphia was their
social rendezvous. Many of them were acquaintances of
her family. They were neighborly and congenial enough,
and the means of intercommunication were excellent.
One of lighter tastes, and less serious purpose and sense
of duty, could easily have found, in her new surroundings,
all the social enjoyment she desired, and might have been
quite happy and free from care.

But it was not so with the mistress of Only. She had
too much of the old Puritan blood in her to ignore the
word " duty." She adored her husband, and was as ambi
tious as himself, which is saying a great deal. She knew
that, if he was to maintain his professional and political
prominence, she must assume her share of the duties of
their domestic life ; and when she fully realized what that
meant for her, she doubted her ability to bear the burden
it imposed ; but, asking God to sustain her, resolved to try.


With the abundance of servants at her command, the
care of her children was a task comparatively easy. But
it was these very servants who were the chief cause of
her anxieties. They were slaves. When she had con
sented to marry her husband, she had not fully consid
ered, perhaps, the difference between conducting a Phi
ladelphia household and being mistress of a Virginia
plantation. At the former place, an impudent or sick or
worthless servant might be discharged or sent to a hospi
tal, and the place supplied by another. Here, a discharge
was impossible. Beside the necessity for discipline, every ;
requirement, whether of food or clothing, or care in sick
ness, had to be supplied to these forty servants, who were
as dependent as so many babies. In those days, slavery
was not looked upon, even in Quaker Philadelphia, with
the shudder and abhorrence one feels towards it now. It
had not been a great while since it existed in Pennsyl
vania. A few slaves were still owned in Delaware, and
Maryland and Virginia were slave States. The time had
come, it is true, when it was abolished in Pennsylvania ;
but its existence was a fact so familiar that it produced
no particular protest or expression of abhorrence, and, by
all save a small coterie of abolitionists, was regarded as
probably permanent. Slave-owners mingled with non-
slave-owners upon terms of mutual regard and respect,
unaffected, apparently at least, by any consideration of
the subject of slavery.

Even if my mother had no qualms of conscience con
cerning ownership of negroes, her sense of duty carried
her far beyond the mere supplying of their physical needs,
or requiring that they render faithful service. Forty im
mortal souls, as she viewed it, had been committed to her
guidance. Every time one of these gentle and affection
ate creatures called her " mistress," the sense of obliga-


tion resting upon her, to keep their souls as well as their
bodies fit for God, echoed back to her tender heart with
alarming distinctness. And in time, sweetly and humbly
as she performed her task, it became very irksome. She
sleeps to-day in Laurel Hill, on the banks of the Schuyl-
kill, having died at the early age of thirty-three, and no
one knows how much that sense of duty to her slaves
contributed to her death.

Ah, you who blame the slaveholder of the olden day,
how little you know whereof you speak, or how he or she
became such ; how little allowance you make for surround
ing circumstances ; how little you reck, in your general
anathemas against the slave-owner, of the true and beauti
ful and good lives that sacrificed themselves, toiling to do
their duty to the slaves in that state of life to which it
pleased God to call them ! There is not a graveyard in
Old Virginia but has some tombstone marking the resting-
place of somebody who accepted slavery as he or she
found it, who bore it as a duty and a burden, and who
wore himself or herself out in the conscientious effort to
perform that duty well. Mark you, I am not bemoaning
the abolition of slavery. It was a curse, and nobody
knows better than I the terrible abuses which were pos
sible and actual under the system. Thank God, it is

All that I am saying to you now is, you who fought
slavery, as well as you who have heard it described in the
passionate denunciations following its death, realize that
the name of slave-owner did not always, or even in the
majority of cases, imply that the slave-owner was one whit
less conscientious, one whit less humane, one whit less
religious, or one whit less entitled to man s respect or
God s love, than you, who, because, perhaps, you were
never slave-owners, delight to picture them as something


inferior to your precious selves. After all, it was not
you, but God that abolished slavery. You were his mere
instruments to do his work.

In the case of my mother, her task was somewhat light
ened by the character of her possessions, for the slaves
were of more than usual intelligence, and were, for the
most part, family inheritances.

This was no abode of hardship and stony hearts. No
slaves were sold from that plantation. The young ones
might have eaten their master s head off before he would
have taken money for their fathers and their mothers
children. No overseer brandished the whip that is so
prominent a feature upon the stage, or in the abolition
books of fiction.

Back to me, through the mists of nearly half a century,
comes once more the vision of the young Puritan mother,
who followed the man she loved into this exile from
every association of her youth, and yet was happy in that
love because she worshiped him next to her God.

Now I see her upon a Sabbath afternoon, with all her
slaves assembled in the hallway, dressed in their Sunday
clothes. Young and old, her own children and her ser^
vants, are gathered about her to listen to the word of

I have heard many great orators and preachers in my
day, but never a voice like that of my mother, as she read
and expounded the Holy Word to her children and her

In later years, I have heard great voices and great mel
odies, but never sweeter sounds to mortal ear than those
of my mother and her children and her slaves, singing the
simple hymns she read out to them on those Sabbath after
noons at Only, in the days of slavery.

Then came the lessons in the catechism taught to chil-


dren and slaves in the same class, where, before God, the
two stood upon equal terms, the blacks sometimes proving
themselves to be the quicker scholars of the two.

Such was my childhood s home ; and such was many
another home in that land which, year by year, is being
more and more depicted by ignorance and prejudice
as the abode of only the brutal slave-driver and his

The beautiful month of October, 1850, with its wealth
of color and its exquisite skies, rolled round. All seemed
well at home. My father, once more immersed in politi
cal life, was absent in Richmond, a delegate to a great
constitutional convention, where all his energies were
directed towards adjusting the true basis of representation
in the legislature between the sections of Virginia where
slavery existed and those where no slaves were owned.
It was a difficult question, on which he had taken ground
in favor of a manhood suffrage as opposed to suffrage
based upon representation of the property owners. Nearly
every mail brought letters to mother announcing the pro
gress of the fight, in which she seemed deeply absorbed.
The reputation which her husband was making resulted
five years later in his election as governor, and she clearly
foresaw that result. This prospect reconciled her to the
separation, and made her look bravely forward to an
expected event.

One day I missed my mother, and was told that she
was ill. Servants were hurrying back and forth, and
soon the doctor arrived. Bedtime came, and Eliza, the
white nurse, took me away from the nursery adjoining
my mother s chamber, and put me to bed in a strange
room. There, after undressing me, she made me kneel,
and, in saying my prayers, ask God to bless mamma.
When I was tucked away in bed, she sat beside me, and


stroked my long tresses, and sighed. It was all very
strange. " Mammy Liza, is mamma very sick? " I asked.
" No, my child, I hope not," said she, and then bade ine
go to sleep, and soon I closed my eyes.

It was not for long, for in an hour or two I heard
voices in the hall, and hurrying footsteps, and, awakening
and sitting bolt upright in bed awhile, I finally slipped
down to the floor, and made my way, in my thin night-
clothes, into the hall, where I found the servants assem
bled, and weeping as if their hearts would break, uttering
loud lamentations. " What is it, Aunt Mary Anne ? "
said I, cold, and shivering with fright. " Oh, my po
baby, yo mamma is dead, yo mamma is dead ! Oh,
my po , po mistis is dead dead dead ! " she screamed,
at the same time seizing me, and wrapping me in her
shawl, and bearing me back to the warmth.

Night wore away mournfully enough, until at last, with
a faithful slave beside me, I sobbed myself asleep, cry
ing more because others about me wept, than because I
knew the real cause for my grief. Morning came, and
when I awoke, I could not yet fully understand the solemn
silence of all about me, or the meaning of the strange
black things I saw. Breakfast over, the old nurse came
to me to go with her and see mamma. In silence, and amid
the sobs of every servant on the place, I and my little bro
ther and sister were led into a darkened room. There,
on the bamboo bedstead which she had brought as her
favorite from Rio, lay mamma, apparently asleep, a tiny
baby resting on her breast. By her side, his head buried
in the pillow, and sobbing as if his heart would break, was
my oldest brother, not her own child, but one who had
loved her as his own mother, and who now mourned a
second mother dead. Gazing out of the half -opened win
dow, dressed in solemn black, stood the physician who had


sought in vain to save her. I was frightened and awed
beyond utterance.

The next day the Fashion, Captain Hopkins s best
vessel, lay to at the Only lauding. A fearful-looking
black box covered with velvet was borne aboard the
Planter with solemn steps. Her sails were hoisted. With
the freshening breeze she bore away, and, as the even
ing sunlight made a shining pathway on Onancock Creek,
the vessel pursued her course westward until she became
a tiny speck and disappeared. They told me that my
mother was in heaven. Since that day, whenever the
route to heaven arises to my mind, I see the white sails of
a vessel gliding westward in the golden pathway made
upon dancing waters by the brilliant sinking sun of a
clear autumn evening.

The home-coming of father, some weeks after this sad
event, was pitiful indeed.

He had been advised of my mother s death by a mes
senger, who rode forty miles down the Peninsula, crossed
the bay to Norfolk, and thence telegraphed to Kichmond.
Such were the difficulties of communication, even at that
recent date. When the news first reached him, the body
was on its way to Baltimore, and thither he repaired to
meet it, and accompany it to its last resting-place. After
this, he had been compelled to return to his duties in the
convention at Richmond, a widowed relative having mean
while assumed charge of his family, and holding them
together until he could return.

In the darkness of a drizzling winter evening, after
a long, cheerless ride, he drew near his desolate home.
A chill nor easter storm, which had lasted for two days,
made the passage across the Chesapeake, in the stuffy
little steamboat Monmouth, exceedingly disagreeable.
The few friends he met at the wharf expressed their sym-


pathy more by subdued speech and close grasp of the
hand than in actual utterance. A storm-stained gunner,
clad in oilcloth, who had just made his landing from his
goose-blind to ship his game to market, came up to the
carriage and handed in, as tribute of his interest, a beauti
ful brace of brant. As he shook the rain from his tar
paulin, remarking that it was a great day for shooting, he
uttered no word of consolation ; but his manner and his
act were as delicately suggestive of his reasons as if he
had been bred to the manners of a court.

Although the vehicle sent for father was amply sup
plied with curtains, aprons, and robes, the rain beat in
upon him as he drove facing the storm, its cool moisture
not ungrateful to his fevered cheek. Ordinarily, the
homeward ride on such occasions was relieved by cheerful
conversation between master and man concerning domestic
matters and the progress of farm work. To-night, the
weeds of mourning and the sunken cheek and eye had
awed the faithful slave into respectful silence, which the
master seldom saw fit to break. Homeward they sped in
silence, with little to vary the monotonous pitapat of
Lady Ringtail s hoofs in the shallow pools with which the
storm had filled the level roads.

He lay back with folded arms and half-closed eyes,
resentfully brooding upon the hard fate which had twice
made him a widower. At a turn of the road they passed
a silver maple, whose faultless form and beautiful coloring
in springtime and in autumn had so excited the admira
tion of his wife that the children had named it " mamma s
tree." It was leafless and bare to-night. A scurrying
blast, shaking it as they passed, blew down from it a
shower of raindrops, as if in mockery.

At the outer farm-gate the driver alighted, and, as
father walked the mare slowly through the open gate, he


caught sight of the twinkling light which shone from the
chamber where mother had died. It had ever been a
beacon to him in days gone by. There, many a day, had
she sat and watched for his return ; and many a night
had she drawn back the curtain that he might see her
signal first of all. The sight of it had always warmed
his heart. Now, he almost shuddered at the thought of
returning home. As they entered the yard, and drove
around the circle leading to the doorstep, he turned his
face away from her terraced garden, only to look upon
the arbor, where, in days gone by, she had delighted to
sit and watch the sunsets.

Before the vehicle drew up at the door, news of the
father s and the master s arrival had spread through all
of the household. Wide open flew the doors, and down
the steps, bareheaded and heedless of rain or wind, we
children rushed, shouting " Papa papa papa ! " and
springing into his arms with rapturous kisses. One by
one we were snatched and hugged and kissed, and pushed
backwards up the steps, with orders to run in out of the
rain, while he busied himself for a moment giving direc
tions concerning his luggage and the care of Lady Ring

Poor little ones ! How insensible they were to the great
calamity that had befallen them ! How little they real
ized his loss or their own ! In the short weeks since our
mother s death, weeks filled with deep affliction to him,
our mourning-clothes had become familiar to us ; our
kind old aunt had taken mother s place in all our thoughts
and for all our wants ; our mamma was only a beautiful
vision of the past. We laughed and romped, and greeted
papa with joyous faces ; unconscious alike that we had
cause for sorrow, or that his heart was bleeding afresh at
sight of us.


The welcome awaiting him within was different from
the joyous babble of the little ones outside. There, almost
dreading to meet him, was the half -grown daughter of his
first marriage. She was old enough to know and feel
what a deep, irreparable loss had come upon her just when
she most needed the love and care and guidance of the
one now dead. It was not, and yet it was, her own mo
ther that had died. And there was the tender-hearted
woman who had come to keep together his little flock
until his return. She had truly loved his wife, and now,
herself a widow, she had seen him twice bereft.

As these two twined their arms about him, and buried
their faces upon his shoulder sobbing, the prattling mo
therless children paused in their merriment to wonder
why their grief should give itself new vent upon an occa
sion so joyous as papa s return.

But let us not dwell longer upon a scene so mournful.

Before leaving Richmond, father had written home
directing that a chamber should be prepared for himself
as far as possible from his former apartment. He could
not brook the thought of living surrounded by the famil
iar objects of her chamber. Although he had been much
absent of late, and much engrossed in other ambitions, he
was a man devoted to his family, and deeply interested in
his home. He knew, whenever he reflected upon the facts,
that his apparent neglect of these duties of late was be
cause of political objects he could not abandon, and that
his course had been taken with his wife s approval ; but
ever and anon the thought came back to him that she had
been alone when she died, and, in spite of all philosophy,
the memory of that lonely death distressed if it did not
actually chide him. He determined that, even at the
sacrifice of ambition, he would henceforth devote himself
to the duties he owed to his children and his home, and


make to her memory the atonement for what he could not
help regarding as neglect of her when she lived.

Online LibraryJohn S. (John Sergeant) WiseThe end of an era → online text (page 3 of 35)