|The city of Charleston, in South Carolina, is often
spoken of as the hotbed in which the rebellion of the South was sprouted.
Before the war Charleston was a delightful city, especially for persons
whose temperament fitted them to enjoy its semi-tropical climate and customs.
Socially it was extremely staid and conservative; and the various classes
of which its population was composed moved along their allotted planes
with but little apparent friction, each individual family seeming content
with its social lot. Charleston was the Philadelphia of the South, with
In situation, it enjoyed the advantages of which New York may boast, without having the obstruction of Long Island. From the Battery, which beautifully matched New York's Castle Garden, the eye uninterrupted might sweep out over a harbor of quiet beauty and drop its exhausted vision to rest in the distant haze of the open sea. The low, green-crested islands which marked the lines of the opening perspective, served as a delicate border, connecting the picture with ourselves; while bold Sumter challenged our gaze for a moment as she reared her grim form against the eastern sky as the faithful gatekeeper of the "City by the Sea."
The view presented by the city itself to the traveler approaching it from the sea was also one of rare beauty. Its shipping, spires, and abundant shrubbery and shade trees combined to enlist the lively sympathy of the visitor; while its background of forest and its surrounding meads of luxuriant green enwrapped it in a setting as delightful as ever greeted the eye.
East and west of the city flowed the Ashly and Cooper rivers, quite similar to the East and North rivers of New York; and on their waters floated the tiny boats of the scores of fishermen who daily supplied the markets with the best fish in the world. Within the city were fine old residences reflecting the wealth and magnificent tastes of their occupants; but the visitor would be more deeply impressed by the public buildings. There was the old Saint Michael's Church, with its magnificent chimes -- Saint Michael's, once saved by the heroism of a negro slave, upon whom the rich sentiment of Charleston bestowed, as a wreath of honor, the boon of freedom. There stood the old French Church, telling its story of the Huguenots; there the citadel, filled with aristocratic cadets; there the theater, coming down from colonial times; the arsenal, asylums, hotels, and school buildings. Churches were numerous and the population decidedly church-going.
The clearly-defined classes in Charleston society were nearly as follows: On the one extreme were the old families who enjoyed a distinction founded upon blood, and who were generally accorded the first place in everything. The other extreme was occupied by the few white laborers and mechanics, to whom was permitted no social standing whatever. They existed and looked on; they did not live and partake. Among the aristocrats were to be found the merchants of the best class; the planters who maintained city residences, or who were frequent visitors to the city; the lawyers, and, above all, the leaders in politics. As a rule, they were gentlemen of leisure, with fair education, and had sometimes traveled extensively; dignified and indolent of manner, and splendid talkers. Their pronunciation of English was old-fashioned, but uniform and fixed; as one pronounced, they all pronounced; their tones were musical and their inflections indicative of taste. They were not without virtue, although the South Carolina aristocracy was really an item brought forward from a closed account, and was both out of date and away from home in the American republic; nevertheless, it had its era and some virtue. Of its vices it is not necessary to speak; all who knew it will admit that it was more admirable at a distance than at close view. The lowest class of whites need not be specially noted. Many of them were upright and respectable, and under freer conditions would have reached the higher ranks of society. The "poor white trash" of the Carolinas generally were not always the worst people. They were uniformly sinned against by the lordly class, and were very much what their condition made them; but among them were many who were far from being despicable.
Between the two extremes already mentioned were several strata of the middle class, comprising superior mechanics, merchants of secondary grade, school teachers, clerks, bookkeepers, and the like. Among these were to be found the usual proportion of good and bad, no doubt; but it was also among them that some of the best people that the city every produced were to be found. The virtues somewhat spurned by the upper classes, and rendered impossible to the lowest class by reason of their social surroundings, seemed to find congenial homes among many of those who were neither high nor low in the social scale. Here alone the domestic virtues especially received their warmest support and brought forth their best fruit.
Charleston was also the center and marked representative of a slaveholding section, and had a very large slave population. Here the Denmark Vesey insurrection was planned, and here too it came to grief, when twenty-two resolute negroes, who had been willing to risk something for freedom, met their death in silence on the scaffold. Here also was the whipping-house, known among negroes ironically as the "sugar house," to which genteel slaveholders sent their slaves to be whipped at so much per lash. Yes, Charleston had her slaves, her free negroes, her free browns, and her mixed-blooded colored people, seemingly without number. The colored people, too, free and slave, were also divided into several classes, the most noted of which were the "free browns," the center of which was the "Brown Fellowship Society," representing persons of mixed blood who were freeborn; and the "Compact," a society of blacks that admitted none to membership saving blacks who had been born in wedlock.
The ante-bellum Charleston, however, is passed away, leaving behind it only memories. For anything like a correct description of it we are dependent upon the fast-fading recollections of the few survivors who knew it as it was. Its picture, beautiful as it was in many respects, is not to be found in its own current literature, not that artists were wanting, but rather because the leaders of thought carried public attention into other fields. The ambitions of politics utterly despoiled the provinces of literature.
The Vanross family belonged to the middle and non-slaveholding class; and it may be well to observe that this class of Southerners, so generally kept in the background, was very largely in the majority. Reduced to the very minimum in social influences by the slaveholding policy of the South, they have seldom appeared in Southern literature except at great disadvantage. Nor indeed have they received from the North that share of public attention in any form to which their character and their numbers entitle them. The slaveholder, actual or ex, has always managed to set himself up as the exclusive representative of the South; and he has been too often admitted as such, without a thought concerning the great majority of good people whom he did not represent. The Vanross family were not slaveholders, but were, nevertheless, intense Southerners.
They were plain, practical, and industrious, considered in the light of the habits and custom of their community. In another place they would have reached high rank in society. As it was, they enjoyed a large share of respect.
The discussion going on in the country foreboding actual war, reached the quiet home of Mrs. Vanross, and greatly agitated the little domestic circle. They loved Charleston as only Charlestonians can; and from this standpoint, in widening circles but with diminishing degrees, they loved the whole South. The soft skies, the balmy climate, the richly-scented flowers, the song-birds, the delicious fruits, their own loved home, the band of cherished friends -- these were their South, rather than the hideous machine of human slavery, rolling out its bales of cotton on one side and oozing out its stream of blood and death on the other.
True to the political and religious teachings they had received from infancy, the whole family went with their State. The two older sons knew that if the war came it would be "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight;" but they also knew the intolerant spirit by which they were surrounded, and for the sake of their mother and sisters they saw that they should be compelled to shoulder muskets. The family consisted of a widowed mother, two daughters, and three sons, two of whom, William and Charles, were well grown. The father had not been long dead, and the house in which they lived was their own, and Mrs. Vanross had a small income besides.
The boys had been early taught to lend a hand in their own support, and the girls had been carefully trained by their mother in all household duties, they and their mother usually doing all the work of the family. When help was necessary they usually employed free colored people. This, however, occasioned no remark, for slaveholders sometimes did the same. As a matter of fact, the members of the Vanross family were all opposed to slavery; but they were very careful never to give expression to their views. With the same hearts, had they lived in Boston rather than in Charleston, they would have been earnest abolitionists. As it was, they were noted for their kindness to colored people, both free and slave.
May, 1865. The Charleston of the past was gone. Great fires had swept over it. Shot and shell had pierced and racked its buildings. Pinching want had reigned within it. All was over now. War had spent its fury and peace had returned.
The flag of our Union once more floated from the flagstaff of the Citadel. Soldiers, soldiers, soldiers were marching everywhere. Socially Charleston now was chaos and coma. The cornerstone of its fabric, slavery, had been plucked out of the building, and a general collapse had followed. Paralyzed and confused, at this hour, it had not taken its first steps toward social reconstruction. The city was not without population, however, for besides the soldiers, from forty-five to fifty thousand civilians were moving to and fro amid its ruins.
The ruling class that had giventone to its society had practically disappeared; and the others, entirely unaccustomed to lead, were existing in a state of apparent bewilderment. Negro soldiers were there, some fresh from the island plantations, others from the free North and West. They had entered the city triumphantly singing "John Brown," and thousands of freedmen had caught the stirring chorus. The streets were daily crowded; old faces were slowly disappearing, and new ones arriving with every steamer.
Two colored soldiers of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts were making their way rather carelessly along Vanderhost Street, in front of the market. Both sides of the walk were lined with rude market stands, and the narrow passageway was thronged with people. The soldiers stopped before an old colored lady's stand and asked for glasses of "root beer." They were chatting, and stepping backward rather carelessly, quite rudely jostled two typical Southern white ladies. The ladies, being naturally in a sensitive state of mind, felt themselves insulted. The soldiers, quickly observing their fault, immediately straightened themselves up, and raising their caps, politely offered their apologies.
"We are not accustomed to that sort of treatment from negroes," said the elder lady.
"Oh! ma, 'tis no use to talk; the negroes have got the city now," said the younger lady. I hope the Yankees are satisfied now; they have put us under our own negroes."
This was a little more than the soldiers could bear cheerfully. Whether a thought of Butler's famous New Orleans order came into their minds or not it would be impossible to say; but they at once changed their attitude, and taking up the glasses of root beer which they had ordered, they tendered them in a brusque manner to the ladies, and with the freedom of thorough familiarity commanded them to drink to the old flag.
The ladies, embarrassed and frightened, saw now their mistake, and fancied themselves in danger. Their eyes filled with tears, and they were now ready to apologize in their turn. The soldiers did no more than press the glasses upon them, but this to them was a terrible humiliation. As they stood hemmed in by the crowd, and suffering from their rude stare, suddenly a young officer dashed up, and comprehending to some extent the situation, addressed the soldiers loudly:
"What in thunder are you boys doing?"
"Nothing, sir," was the quick response.
"Well, then, move on," said Lieutenant Howell.
The soldiers drank their beer and at once complied with the order, although a glance passing from the officer to the men covertly assured them that they had nothing to fear from him.
Lieutenant Howell then advanced directly to the ladies, proffering his assistance and escort, at the same time handing to the elder lady his card. His offer was kindly accepted, and in the short walk from the market to their home his manners and conversation so pleased the ladies that he not only received their thanks, but also an invitation to call on them at his convenience.
When the war broke out Leonard, who had just reached manhood, and still possessed that martial spirit which had manifested itself in the shrill notes of his boyish fife, enlisted at the first call. Entering the ranks as a private soldier, he carried within him a spirit of frankness and fidelity which had been growing in his character since the memorable schoolroom battle; and being blessed with that enthusiasm which naturally springs from good health, it was not long before he became favorably known to both officers and men. He possessed also a fair degree of patriotism, and distinguished himself early by a close attention to duty and by a careful and intelligent execution of orders.
But, like hundreds of other privates who remained in the ranks all through the war, although more worthy to command than scores of others, who through political influence secured shoulder-straps, Leonard seemed destined never to hold a commission. Advanced to the position of sergeant, his course of promotion stopped, and in all probability he would have reached no higher military plane had not the government been compelled about this time to accept the services of colored soldiers. The black regiments that were forming needed officers, and it was the policy of the government to put only white men in command. This opened before the white non-commissioned officers a prospect of promotion toward which they could regard themselves as in direct line. Faithfulness to duty, efficiency in drill, gallantry in the field, all led to promotion as commissioned officers to these newly-forming colored regiments. Here was a chance for merit to make its way; and it has been claimed that these white officers, placed in charge of colored troops, were among the best found in the service.
Hence, when Sergeant Howell received a commission as a second lieutenant in the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts regiment, composed of colored soldiers, it was not only a partial surprise to him, but a compliment to his fidelity and skill.
Entering upon his new duties, his bearing and manners were such that he soon won the respect of the men of his company and the confidence of his superior officers. He was at the storming of Wagner, and at the fearful and disastrous battle of Olustee, when it was evident that "some one had blundered." At Honey Hill he participated in that bloody bayonet duel between his own regiment and a crack regiment from Georgia, the "Savannah Grays," in which the Southern regiment was literally cut to pieces; in a word, he was with his regiment constantly, from the time that he joined it with his new commission until it practically ended the war with the last fight against rebellion at Boynton's Mill. Singular enough it is, that the black man should open the war by becoming its first victim in Baltimore, on April 18, 1861, and should close it in the last victory won over armed treason in 1865.
But the fighting was now over; Jefferson Davis was in hiding probably somewhere in Georgia, carrying the Executive Department of the gasping Confederacy in his trunk; his cabinet and other high officials were seeking rest for their weary feet in the glades and forests, and awaiting opportunities to escape to foreign lands. The whole South was under military rule; and the provost marshal was the most important dignitary in every town. The condition of things under the military was bad enough, but it was immeasurably better than it had been under the declining days of the Confederacy, and better in many respects than that rule which followed it under the guise of reconstruction.
When the two black privates stopped Mrs. Vanross and her daughter and were insisting upon their drinking to the old flag in a glass of common root beer, they had not the fear of so-called Southern chivalry, or Southern law before their eyes. They knew that Southern chivalry had been unhorsed by Federal bayonets, and that Southern law had been declared inoperative by the Department Commander. The glance that passed between Lieutenant Howell and the men was not entirely soldierly; it was rather patriotic and fraternal, and the men moved cheerfully on as bid, deporting themselves as though nothing unusual had occurred.
Lieutenant Howell bowed his thanks on leaving the ladies, for their kind invitation to call, and turned away with as much dignity as he could command. He was greatly elated over the whole affair and felt very much more like complimenting the soldiers who had brought it about than like reporting them for breach of discipline. His accidental meeting with the two modest ladies had made him quite a hero, and had set his mind running in a new direction.
Returning to his quarters, occupied with his own bright thoughts, his life began to assume a romantic cast, and he began to paint himself as the leading character of a drama already well on its course. The pleasant words and sweet smiles of Mrs. Vanross and her daughter had been accepted by him very much above their real value. So long deprived of female society, and knowing but little of the ways of the world, Lieutenant Howell was not prepared to interpret the language and manners of Charleston politeness. He had been decidedly embarrassed while in the presence of the ladies, and had barely borne himself above the gauge of awkwardness; but now that he was at home he saw himself only as a victor. He was not familiar with the fact that Charleston had learned her English greatly through the French; and that words uttered by her fair daughters, especially in their own home, as far as they are employed as vehicles of sentiment, needed to be greatly modified as they are translated into the received currency of New England life. Hence our lieutenant had taken the words and manners of the ladies to signify a great deal more than was intended; and yet the ladies were not insincere, nor had they been extravagant. On the contrary they were both reserved and sincere, according to their standard, notwithstanding they appeared so cordial.
It was with difficulty that Leonard restrained himself until a seasonable time for the promised call should arrive. It came however at length, and most carefully attired, Leonard set out for the visit. His reception was all that he could have wished; and he was delighted with the quiet grace of the mother, and with the beauty of Miss Hortense. To tell the whole truth, Leonard had never before enjoyed the companionship or even the anxiety, of such thoroughly refined people -- excepting of course their antipathy to negro soldiers, which to them at that time was quite excusable.
Leonard's visits to the Vanross residence became afterward quite frequent, and as the days and weeks rolled on, the intimacy between himself and the family grew into friendship; and when in midsummer, his regiment was ordered North to be mustered out of service, Miss Hortense had exacted from him the promise to write to her. The whole family also joined in inviting him to pay them a visit during the coming winter.