Marion Harland reflects on “fear” of slave insurrection

Posted on October 17, 2015 by


On this night 156 years ago, John Brown and several of his men held the small engine house in Harper’s Ferry. The contingent of Marines that successfully put an end to the “raid” would not arrive until the next day.

Between this story and that of Gabriel’s Rebellion, and then later, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, I often wonder how white Southerners saw the potential of “rebellions” through the years.

It so happened that, while thumbing through various sources on Marion Harland (if you take the time to look, you can see where I’ve written about her before), I found an interesting account written by her years after the end of slavery. I excerpt only the second half of her chapter “The Menace of Slave Insurrection”, from her book Marion Harland’s Autobiography: The Story of a Long Life. I’ve placed emphasis on a few sections that I find particularly interesting in the matter of “trust”.

Portion of the wood engraving (1831) showing imagery of Nat Turner's Rebellion. Imagery that added to Hewes' fear, perhaps... and despite the trust she placed in the family slaves.

Portion of the wood engraving (1831) showing imagery of Nat Turner’s Rebellion. Imagery that added to Hewes’ fear, perhaps… and despite the trust she placed in the family slaves.

I am often asked why, if our family servants were really and warmly attached to us, we should have let the “bugbear” poison our pleasures and haunt our midnight visions. To the present hour I am conscious of a peculiar stricture of the heart that stops my breath for a second, at the sudden blast of a hunter’s horn in the country. Before I was eight years old I had heard the tale of Gabriel’s projected insurrection, and of the bloodier outbreak of murderous fury led by Nat Turner, the petted favorite of a trusting master. Heard that the signal of attack in both cases was to be “a trumpet blown long and loud.” Again and again, on my visits to country plantations, I have been thrown into a paroxysm of terror when awakened from sleep in the dead of night, by the sound of the horns carried by “coon hunters” in their rounds of the woods nearest us. I could not have been over ten, when, on a visit to “Lethe,” a homestead occupied for a while by Uncle Carus, I was rambling in the garden soon after sunrise, picking roses, and let them fall from nerveless fingers at the ringing blast of a “trumpet blown long and loud”, from the brow of a neighboring hill. As it pealed louder and longer, until the blue welkin above me repeated the sound, I fled as fast as my freezing feet would carry me, to the deepest recesses of the graveyard at the foot of the garden, and hid in a tangle of wild raspberry bushes higher than my head. There I lay, wet with the dews of the past night, and my face and hands scratched to bleeding, until the winding horn grew faint and fainter, and the bay of a pack of hounds told me what a fool panic had made of me. We always thought of the graveyard as an asylum in the event of a rising. No negro would venture to enter it by day or night.

In any ordinary period of danger or distress, I would have trusted my life in the hands of the men and women who had been born on the same plantation with my mother, and the younger generation, to whom she had been a faithful and benignant friend from their cradles. In fire and flood and tempest; in good report and evil report; in sickness and in health; in poverty, as in riches – they would have stood with, and for us to the death. We knew them to be but children of a larger growth, passionate and unreasoning, facile and impulsive, and fanatical beyond anything conceivable by the full-blooded white. The superstitious savagery their ancestors had brought from barbarous and benighted Africa, was yet in their veins. We had heard how Gabriel, a leader in prayer-meetings, and encouraged by the whites to do Christian evangelization among his own race, had deliberately meditated and written down, as sections of the code to be put into practice, when he should come into his kingdom of Lower Virginia – a plan of murder of all male whites, and a partition of the women and girl-children among his followers, together with arson and tortures exceeding the deviltries of the red Indians. We had heard from the lips of eyewitnesses, scenes succeeding the Southampton massacre of every white within the reach of the murderous horde howling at the heels of the negro preacher whom his master had taught to read and write – how the first victim of the uprising, in the name of God and freedom, was that master as he lay asleep at his wife’s side. Of how coolly – even complacently – Turner recorded: “He sprang up, calling his wife’s name. It was his last word. A single blow was sufficient to kill him. We forgot a baby that was asleep in the cradle, but Hark went back and dispatched it.”

In every plan of rising against their masters, Religion was a potent element. It was, to their excitable imaginations, a veritable Holy War, from which there would be no discharge. The “Mammy” who had nursed her mistress’s baby at her own bosom, would brain it, with the milk yet wet upon its lips, if bidden by the “prophet” to make the sacrifice. Nat Turner split with his axe the skull of a boy he had carried in his arms scores of times, and stayed not his hand, although the little fellow met him with a happy laugh and outstretched arms and the cry, “Uncle Nat, you have come to give me a ride! Haven’t you?”

I repeat, we knew with what elements we should have to deal if the “rising” ever took an organized form. This ever-present knowledge lay at the root of the hatred of the “abolition movement.” To the Northerner, dwelling at ease among his own people, it was – except to the leaders – an abstract principle. “All men are created free and equal” – a slaveholder had written before his Northern brother emancipated his unprofitable serfs. Ergo, reasoned the Northern brother, in judicial survey of the increasing race, whose labor was still gainful to tobacco and wheat planter, the negro slave had a right to “liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

He did not count the cost of a consummation devoutly to be desired. He had no occasion to meditate upon the bloody steps by which the enslaved and alien race would climb to the height the Abolitionist would stimulate him to attain.

So well was it understood that a mother ran dangerous risks if she put her child into the care of the colored woman who complained that she “was tired of that sort of work,” that neglect of such dislike of a nurse’s duties was considered foolhardy. I heard a good old lady, who owned so many servants that she hired a dozen or so to her neighbors, lament that Mrs. Blank “did not mind what I told her about Frances’ determination not to take care of children. I hired the girl to her as a chambermaid, and gave her fair warning that she just would not be a nurse. A baby was born when Frances had been there four months, and she was set to nurse it. You must have heard the dreadful story? Perhaps you saw it in the papers. When the child was six months old the wretched creature pounded glass and put it in the baby’s milk. The child died, and the girl was hanged.”

Ugly stories, these, but so true in every particular that I cannot leave them out of my chronicle of real life and the workings of what we never thought, then, of calling “the peculiar institution.”

One of my most distinct recollections of the discussions of Slavery held in my hearing is that my saintly Aunt Betsy said, sadly and thoughtfully:

“One thing is certain – we will have to pay for the great sin of having them here. How, or when, God alone knows.”

“We did not bring them to Virginia!” was my mother’s answer. “And I, for one, wish they were all back in Africa. But what can we do, now that they are on our hands?”

Before turning to other and pleasanter themes, let me say that my father, after consultation with the wife who had brought to him eight or ten “family servants” as part of her father’s estate, resolved to free them and send them to Liberia at his own expense. This was in my early childhood, yet I recollect how the scheme failed through the obstinate refusal of the slaves to leave master, home, and country for freedom in a strange land. They clung to my mother’s knees, and prayed her, with wild weeping, not to let them go. They had blood relatives and dear friends here; their children had intermarried with men and women in different parts of the county; their grandfathers and great- grandfathers had left them no legacy of memories that would draw them toward the far-off country which was but the echo of an empty name to their descendants. They were comfortable and happy here. Why send them, for no fault of theirs, into exile?

“There is something in what they say!” my father had said to my mother, in reviewing the scene. “I cannot see that anything is left for us to do except to keep on as we are, and wait for further indications of the Divine will.”

This was in the thirties, not many years after an act of gradual emancipation was lost in the Legislature by the pitiful majority I named in an earlier paragraph. A score of years had passed since that momentous debate in our capitol, and our Urim and Thummin had not signified that we could do anything better than to “keep on as we were.”

It would be idle to say that we were not, from time to time, aware that a volcano slumbered fitfully beneath us. There were dark sides to the Slavery Question, for master, as for slave.

Was she, as some might suggest, under some unrealistic and false understanding of the relationship between her (and her family) and the slaves of the family, or… was she sincere in her belief and understanding? Had over a half a century clouded her memory, or was she carefully selective about her comments as she wrote this?

I hesitate to add this next part (because I wonder what responses the post might gather if I didn’t say this), but… how many upon reading this will judge her and her family without taking the time to understand the story behind both? How often does this “blanket judgment” convey in contemporary times, across all families of slaveholders?

Even taken out of the context of the letter in which he wrote it, was John S. Mosby correct in saying “People must be judged by the standard of their own age.”?