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John S. (John Sergeant) Wise.

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occurred and Buchanan was chosen, I did not know that
the real battle had been between Buchanan and Fremont,
and that, for the first time, a solid North had been arrayed
politically against a solid South.

No ; however seriously a -scrutiny of the returns may
have affected older and more thoughtful people, young
folks, and many older folks than I, looked only at the
results, and regarded the election of Buchanan as once
more putting at rest the plans of the abolitionist and



BEHIND THE SCENES 73

the fears of the slaveholder. Little did I foresee that
within eight years from the time I was hurrahing for
" Buck and Breck," I should be led in battle by Breck
in an assault on Buck, and upon everything that Buck
and Breck stood for in the great election of 1856.

The result of the election of 1856 gave great satis
faction at our home. In the year 1857, passing through
Washington on our return from the annual visit to Phi
ladelphia, I had the distinguished honor of visiting a
President for the first time. In company with a friend
of father s, we children were taken to the White House.
The President was a charming old gentleman, of very
distinguished appearance. His greeting was cordial and
simple. I looked him over carefully, and wondered why
he had one hazel and one blue eye, and why he had never
married. Then I reflected that perhaps that was the real
reason, for the dear old fellow seemed exceedingly fond of
children, and perhaps, after all, would have had a wife
and children, if he could have found a lady who would be
content with a pair of misfit eyes. Very sweet and tender
eyes they were, however. After looking through the
President s conservatory and receiving some pretty flowers,
and eating a fine piece of President s cake, and being in
trusted with some kind messages for father, we felt that
we had not made any mistake in supporting Buchanan
for President.

Soon after this, we had an opportunity of seeing an
eminent representative of the other side in politics. Per
sonal animosities did not enter so largely into politics in
those days as they do now, although the stakes of the po
litical game were greater, and the issues really more vital.

An abolitionist in the abstract, as conceived by us,
under the teachings surrounding us, was a very frightful
creature. We had heard much of past negro insurrec-



74 THE END OF AN ERA

tions inspired by secret Northern emissaries. It was part
of my early education to learn of a fearful massacre, led
by a desperate negro named Nat Turner, in the county of
Southampton, a few years before I was born. I had been
taught to believe that Nat Turner and his deluded follow
ers had really had no cause of grievance, but that secret
abolition emissaries had gone among them, and with devil
ish malignity had stimulated them to rise in the night, and
put to death a number of innocent people who had been
good to them all their lives, to whom they owed every debt
of gratitude for becoming their masters here and making
Christians of them, instead of leaving them savages in
Africa. All this seemed reasonable, with no argument on
the other side ; and the fact that Nat Turner and all who
joined him were wiped off the face of the earth seemed a
natural result of Nat s lack of appreciation of the good
state in which he lived. In a general way I had heard,
and heard it with regret, that the real culprits, the aboli
tionists, who had made Nat Turner do these horrid things,
had escaped, and from time to time contemplated the pos
sibility that such fiends still existed, and still prowled at
night about negro quarters, and induced them to run
away. Of course, I had no idea that such a thing as a
negro insurrection could occur in our community with
a body of troops present like the Public Guard. But why
talk of such possibilities? Were not the negroes per
fectly content and happy? Had I not often talked to
them on the subject ? Had not every one of them told
me repeatedly that they loved " old Marster " better than
anybody in the world, and would not have freedom if he
offered it to them ? Of course they had, many and
many a time. And that settled it.

All this being true, I looked upon an abolitionist as, in
the first place, a rank fool, engaged in trying to make



BEHIND THE SCENES 75

people have what they did not want ; and in the next
place, as a disturber of the peace, trying to make people
wretched who were happy, and a man bad at heart, who
was bent on stealing what belonged to his neighbor, or
even inciting the murder of people for slaveholding, as if
slaveholding were a crime, when it was no crime, but a
natural and necessary condition of society.

With views like this concerning abolitionists in general,
my curiosity was greatly excited when I heard that one
William H. Seward, the acknowledged leader of the Re-
publican party in the North, was not only in the city of
Richmond, but was visiting and being entertained by the
Hon. James Lyons, a connection and supporter of my
father.

When I was presented to Mr. Seward, I was greatly
surprised to find him a natural-looking person, with most
attractive manners, genial, bright in companionship, laugh
ing in his talk, and actually going so far as to call his
host Lyons, and the other gentlemen by their given names.
Mr. Seward surprised me also by eating and drinking and
smoking, and having a good time generally ; and I watched
him long and in vain to see some distinguishing mark by
which I might thereafter recognize an abolitionist. I dis
covered none, except it be a wonderfully large nose, which
was also a characteristic of John Brown and Abraham
Lincoln, his brother abolitionists.

I listened in vain for some utterance of abolition views
from Mr. Seward, but the party seemed more interested
in a decanter of old Madeira, and a discussion of some
passing social event, than in the all-absorbing question of
slavery, and so Mr. Seward s convictions were reserved
for future expression. I thought he might possibly give
money to Austin the butler, with which to escape from
slavery, but, so far as was ever discovered, nothing like



76 THE END OF AN ERA

that occurred. Mr. Seward came and went. He enjoyed
his visit, and his host enjoyed his company. But neither
made much impression on the political views of the other.
Many other things were happening which drew my
attention to the subject of slavery. During our next
visit to Philadelphia, everybody was talking about a book
and a play called " Uncle Tom s Cabin." I had heard
mention of the book at home, as a very powerful but
very " pernicious " book. More than once the subject
had come up in conversation in my presence ; and I had
heard the work spoken of as a cruel travesty upon South
ern life, disgusting in its sentimental sympathy with the
negro. I was surprised to find that everybody in the
North was reading " Uncle Tom s Cabin," and pronoun
cing it a remarkable production ; and when it was pro
posed, on our next visit to Philadelphia, to take me to
a theatre to see this wonderful play of "Uncle Tom s
Cabin," I was delighted. Never did theatrical perform
ance open to any one more gratifyingly than that wonder
ful drama. In my heart I had a feeling that our North
ern kinsfolk thought their homes were finer than those
in our beloved South. I did not think so. When,
in the opening act, I saw the beautiful Southern home,
with its flowers and bowers and sunshine, I said to myself,
" Now they will see how we live, and will envy us." Yes,
old Uncle Tom and all his family were just such darkeys
as were in Virginia. And as for Eva, there she was,
looking like a hundred little girls I knew, and infi
nitely sweeter in voice and eye than the prim Northern
girls surrounding me. And Eva s father! I knew a
hundred charming young fellows just like him. Her mo
ther ? Well, there was no denying it that now and then
we saw one like her, but she was not a common or attrac
tive type. And Topsy ? Yes, there were darkeys just like-



BEHIND THE SCENES 77

her, even within my limited knowledge. I laughed and
enjoyed myself along with the others over Topsy s queer
antics.

The play moved on. In time the slave auction came,
and the negro-buyers, and the terrible domestic tragedy
to Uncle Tom, and the fearful Mississippi River trip, and
the whipping of Eliza s husband, her flight, the blood
hounds, and all the ghastly story which thrilled a nation.
I was too young to grasp the moral of that story, yet
old enough to feel my heart rebel against things which I
had never before seen laid at the door of the people
I loved and among whom I lived. I believed that many
of them were the mere creations of a malignant enemy,
who had conjured them up out of her own imagination to
prejudice the outside world against my kith and kin, and
I indignantly denied, when questioned concerning the
play, that such scenes were possible. I had never wit
nessed them, or heard of them, in the home of my father.
I resolved to denounce and forget this new phase of sla
very which that night had revealed to me, and the anger
and the pity which I heard expressed by the people about
me confirmed me in the belief that they were sentimental
ists on subjects of which they were ignorant, and that the
denunciation of slavery by Northerners sprang from pre
judices engendered by just such outrageous exaggerations
as those of " Uncle Tom s Cabin."

But the play made a deep and lasting impression upon
me. The sweet vision of little Eva, the inexpressible
pathos of Uncle Tom, the freaks of Topsy, came back to
me time and time again. Alas ! they returned yoked in
my memory with the wretched figure of Legree, the blood
hounds, and the misery of the other scenes, and the possi
bility that it all might be true revealed itself to me in a
way that I little expected. I knew there was such a thing



78 THE END OF AN ERA

as a negro-buyer. On one or two occasions I had had
such men pointed out to me. I had been taught to regard
them as an inferior class of humanity ; but this knowledge
came principally from the negroes themselves, for the
grown people of my own class seldom referred to them,
and they received no sort of social recognition. I had, in
fact, seen in the newspapers advertisements of the sale of
negroes, side by side with little figures of a man with a
pack on his back, and the offer of a reward for a runaway.
But never until my return from the North was my curios
ity sufficiently aroused to make me locate the place of sell
ing negroes, or determine me to see a sale.

Among my Northern kinsfolk was a young uncle, a
handsome, witty fellow, much younger than my mother.
Notwithstanding her death, he had kept up his affection
and intimacy with father. Influenced partly by his regard
for father and partly by pride as a Pennsylvanian, he had
become an ardent supporter of Mr. Buchanan. He occu
pied a rather prominent position as a Democratic member
of the Pennsylvania legislature. Controlled doubtless by
his warm attachments in the South, he had no squeamish
feelings about slavery. He loved the Union, and sincerely
believed that the only way to preserve it was by recogniz
ing the existence of slavery, and by protecting the slave
holders in all lawful ways. He believed also that men like
his brother-in-law were convinced that slavery ought to
be abolished ; and that the best way to bring that result
about, without disunion and conflict, was to trust to its
gradual accomplishment by the slave States themselves,
acting under the influence of men such as he knew,, instead
of attempting to coerce them by outside influence, which,
as he believed, would arouse their antagonism and defi
ance, so as to defeat or delay the end desired. This was
the honest feeling which made many a Northern man a



BEHIND THE SCENES 79

Democrat in those days. It may have been an error in
judgment, but it was an error, if error at all, on the side
of Union and fraternity, springing from a knowledge of
their Southern brethren, a respect and regard for them,
and a desire for the peaceful solution of a most perplex
ing problem. Let no man at this day denounce that feel
ing as cowardice or lack of principle. The man of whom
I write felt that way and acted that way to the last. But
when the " irrepressible conflict " came, he laid down his
life with a smile for the Union, while many a man who
had precipitated the struggle never went to the front.
And he was but one of thousands.

It was he who had taken me to see "Uncle Tom s
Cabin ; " and it was he who had petted me, and taken me
about the streets of Philadelphia, and spoiled me in
many ways; and it was he who had taken me to visit
the President ; and now he had come to visit us, and
spend a week of leisure with his favorite brother-in-law.

My oldest brother had recently returned from Paris.
He had been absent as Secretary of Legation in Berlin
and Paris for nearly six years. He and my uncle were
nearly of the same age, and devoted friends. Father loved
this oldest son as the apple of his eye, and the feeling of
that son for his father was little short of adoration. The
relations between these three father, son, and brother-in-
law were of the most intimate and beautiful kind. To
gether they conferred, as if they were men of the same age,
and, being in full accord on public questions, their views
were always harmonious, whether looking to some social
pleasure, or some cooperation for the advancement of their
political plans. Father had higher ambitions than he
had yet realized. He was becoming prominent as a possi
ble candidate for the presidency. Both from a natural
inclination and a desire to promote his candidacy, my



80 THE END OF AN ERA

brother had become editor of the " Richmond Enquirer,"
the leading Democratic journal of Virginia ; my uncle was
heart and soul enlisted in securing support for father
among his own constituency. It was believed that his
well-known conservatism on the subject of slavery, and
his intense devotion to the Union, would make his pro
spects very good for the nomination.

I "had unrestrained access to the library, where this trio
frequently assembled ; and, without being admitted into
their graver conversation, heard it, and understood its gen
eral tenor. The occupations of my father and brother left
their visitor to find his own amusements until the evening
hour, and he diverted himself at such times by reading or
sight-seeing, or in diversions with the children, of whom
he was very fond.

One Saturday, thus left alone with me, the subject
of " Uncle Tom s Cabin " came up. He asked if I had
ever seen a slave sale. " No," said I, all alert, for since I
saw the play I had resolved that I would some time see
a slave auction ; " but I know where they sell them. I
saw the sign a few days ago. Let us go and see what it
is like." So off we started. Out of the beautiful grounds
and past the handsome residences we went, turning down
Franklin Street towards the great Exchange Hotel, which
was at that time the principal public place of Richmond.
Beyond it we passed a church, still used as such, although
the locality had been deserted by residences, and stables
and little shops surrounded it. As we proceeded, the
street became more and more squalid and repulsive, until
at last we reached a low brick warehouse, with its end
abutting on the street and running far back. Over the
place was the sign, with the name of an owner and
the words " Auction House" conspicuously painted. At
the door hung a red flag, with an advertisement pasted on



BEHIND THE SCENES 81

its side, and up and down the street a mulatto man walked
with another flag, ringing a large bell, and shouting, " Oh,
yea ! Oh, yea ! Oh, yea ! Walk up, gentlemen. The sale
of a fine, likely lot of young niggers is now about to
begin." To these he added, in tones which were really
merry, and with an expansive smile, that they were " all
sorts of niggers, belonging to the estate of the late ,
sold for no fault, but to settle the estate ; " and that the
lot embraced all kinds, " old ones and young ones, men
and women, gals and boys."

About the door, and on the inside, a few men were
grouped, some in their shirt-sleeves. For the most part,
they had the appearance of hostlers. The place itself
looked like a livery stable within the building. For a
long distance back from the street, there were no side
lights or skylights. In the rear only was it light, where
the structure projected beyond those on either side of it,
and there the light was ample, and the business in hand
was to be transacted.

We moved cautiously through the dark front of the
building, and came at last to the rear, where a small plat
form occupied the centre of the room, and chairs and
benches were distributed about the walls. Another large
mulatto man appeared to act as usher, standing near a
door, through which from time to time he furnished a
fresh supply of slaves for sale. A large man, with full
beard, not a bad-looking fellow but for the " ratty " ap
pearance of his quick, cold, small black eyes, acted as
auctioneer. A few negroes sat on the bench by the door,
they being the first " lot " to be disposed of. The pur
chasers stood or sat about, smoking or chewing tobacco,
while the auctioneer proceeded to read the decree of a
chancery court in the settlement of a decedent s estate,
under which this sale was made. The lawyers represent-



82 THE END OF AN ERA

ing different interests were there, as were also the cred
itors and distributees having interests in the sale. Besides
these were ordinary buyers in need of servants, and slave-
traders who made a living by buying cheap and selling
for a profit. We took seats, and watched and listened
intently.

After reading the formal announcement authorizing
the sale, the auctioneer became eloquent. He proceeded
to explain to his auditors that this was " no ordinary sale
of a damaged, no- count lot of niggers, whar a man buyin
a nigger mout or mout not git what he was lookin fur,
but one of those rar opperchunities, which cum only once
or twice in a lifetime, when the buyer is sho that fur
every dollar he pays he s gittin a full dollar s wuth of
raal genuine nigger, healthy, well-raised, well-mannered,
respectful, obejunt, and willin ." " Why," said he, " gen
tlemen, you kin look over this whole gang of niggers, from
the oldest to the youngest, an you won t find the mark of

a whip on one of em. Colonel , for whose estate

they is sold, was known to be one of the kindest marsters,
and at the same time one of the best bringers-up of nig
gers, in all Virginia. These here po devils is sold for
no fault whatever, but simply and only because, owin to
the Curnel s sudden death, his estate is left embarrassed,
and it is necessary to sell his niggers to pay his debts, and
for distributin some reddy monny amongst numrus aars.
Of these facts I assure you upon the honor of a gentle
man."

Having thus paved the way for good prices, he an
nounced that among the slaves to be offered were good
carriage-drivers, gardeners, dining-room servants, farm
hands, cooks, milkers, seamstresses, washerwomen, and
"the most promisin , growin , sleek, and sassy lot of
young niggers he had ever had the pleasure -of offerin ."



BEHIND THE SCENES 83

The sale was begun with some " bucks," as he face
tiously called them. They were young, unmarried fellows
from eighteen to twenty-five. Ordered to mount the auc
tion-block, they stripped to the waist and bounced up,
rather amused than otherwise, grinning at the lively bid
ding they excited. Cautious bidders drew near to them,
examined their eyes, spoke with them to test their hearing
and manners, made them open their mouths and show
their teeth, ran their hands over the muscles of their
backs and arms, caused them to draw up their trousers to
display their legs, and, after fully satisfying themselves on
these and other points, bid for them what they saw fit.
Whenever a sale was concluded, the successful bidder
was announced, and the announcement was greeted by the
darkeys themselves with broad grins, and such expres
sions as " Thank Gord," or " Bless de Lord," if it went
as they wished, or in uncomplaining silence if otherwise.
It was surprising to see how thoroughly they all seemed
to be informed concerning the men who were bidding for
them.

The scenes accompanying the sales of young women
were very similar to those with the young men, except
that what was said to them and about them was astonish
ingly plain and shocking. One was recommended as a
" rattlin good breeder," because she had already given
birth to two children at seventeen years of age. An
other, a mulatto of very comely form, showed deep embar
rassment when questioned about her condition.

They brought good prices. " Niggers is high " was the
general comment. Who bought them, where they went,
whether they were separated from father, mother, brother,
or sister, God knows. Let us hope the result was as
humane as possible.

" I am now goin to offer you a very likely young chile-



84 THE END OF AN ERA

barm woman," said the auctioneer. " She is puffectly
helthy, and without a blemish. Among the family, she
is a universal favorite. I offer her with the privilidge
of takin her husban and two chillen with her at a very
rejuced price, because it is the wish of all concerned to
keep em together, if possible. Get up here, Martha
Ann." A large-framed, warm, comfortable-looking, mo
therly soul, with a fine, honest face, mounted the block.
" Now, gentlemen," said he, continuing, " ef you 11 cast
yo eyes into that corner, you will see Israel, Martha
Ann s husband, and Cephas and Melindy, her two chil
dren. Israel is not what you may call a raal able-bodied
man. He broke his leg some years ago handlin one of
the Curnel s colts, and he ain t able to do heavy work ;
but I am asshoed by everybody on the place that Israel is
a most valuable servant about a house for all kind of
light work, and he can be had mighty cheap."

"Yes, sir," spoke up Israel eagerly, " I kin do as much
ez ennybody ; and, marsters, ef you 11 only buy me and
de chillun with Martha Ann, Gord knows I 11 wuk my
self to deth fur you."

The poor little darkeys, Cephas and Melinda, sat there
frightened and silent, their white eyes dancing like mon
key-eyes, and gleaming in the shadows. As her husband s
voice broke on her ear, Martha Ann, who had been look
ing sadly out of the window in a pose of quiet dignity,
turned her face with an expression of exquisite love and
gratitude towards Israel. She gazed for a moment at her
husband and at her children, and then looked away once
more, her eyes brimming with tears.

" How much am I offered for Martha Ann with the privi
lidge ? " shouted the auctioneer. The bidding began. It
was very sluggish. The hammer fell at last. The price
was low. Perhaps, even in that crowd, nobody wanted



BEHIND THE SCENES 85

them all, and few were willing to do the heartless act
of taking her alone. So she sold low. When the name
of her purchaser was announced, I knew him. He was an
odd, wizen, cheerless old fellow, who was a member of the
Virginia legislature from one of the far-away south-
side counties adjoining North Carolina. Heaven be
praised, he was not a supporter of father, but called
himself an Old-line Whig, and ranked with the opposi
tion. He seemed to have no associates among the mem
bers, and nobody knew where he lived in the city. He
was notoriously penurious, and drew his pay as regularly
as the week rolled around.

44 Mr. buys Martha Ann," said the auctioneer.

44 1 congratulate you, Mr. . You ve bought the

cheapes nigger sold here to-day. Will you take Israel
and the young uns with her ? "

Deep silence fell upon the gathering. Even imperturb
able Martha Ann showed her anxiety by the heaving of
her bosom. Israel strained forward, where he sat, to
hear the first word of hope or of despair. The old man
who had bid for her shuffled forward, fumbling in his
pockets for his money, delaying his reply so long that the
question was repeated. " No o," drawled he at last ;
44 no o, I m sorry for em, but I railly can t. You see, I
live a long way from here, and I ride down to the legisla-
tur , and, when I get here, I sell my horse and live cheap,
and aims to save up enough from my salary to buy an
other horse and a 4 chile-barin woman when the ses
sion s done ; and then I takes her home, ridin behind
me on the horse. Thar ain t no way I could provide for
gittin the man and the young uns home, even if they was
given to me. I think I m doin pretty well to save enough



Online LibraryJohn S. (John Sergeant) WiseThe end of an era → online text (page 6 of 35)