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Children and Youth during the Civil War Era$

James Marten

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780814796078

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: March 2016

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9780814796078.001.0001

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“De drums wus beatin’”: Caroline Richardson Meets the Yankees

“De drums wus beatin’”: Caroline Richardson Meets the Yankees

(p.246) “De drums wus beatin’”: Caroline Richardson Meets the Yankees
Children and Youth during the Civil War Era
James Marten
NYU Press

One of the richest—if problematic—sources for the experiences of African Americans during the Civil War are the famous “slave narratives,” oral histories taken down by Work Projects Administration interviewers in the late 1930s. Eventually more than 2,300 former slaves were interviewed; all but forgotten in state and federal archives for decades, the transcripts of the interviews appeared in print for the first time in the forty-one-volume The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972–79), edited by George P. Rawick. Although the mostly white interviewers cluttered the transcripts with misspellings in an effort to capture “negro dialect,” and although many were less word-for-word transcriptions than they were sometimes creative retellings of conversations, the slave narratives provide the most important set of documents offering the points of view of men and women who had been slaves more than seven decades earlier.

Caroline Richardson’s oral history briefly recalls her childhood on a plantation in central North Carolina. She remembers her master as a relatively kind man and, like many slaves living far from the actual fighting, indicates that the war was not a major factor in her life—until both Confederate and Yankee troops passed by during the final months of the conflict. The excitement of meeting the men in blue—apparently members of General William T. Sherman’s army, who had turned north from Savannah after their “March to the Sea” and forged through South and North Carolina—dominates her account.

I reckin dat I is somers ’bout sixty year old. Anyhow I wus ten or twelve when de Yankees come ter Marse Ransome bridgers’ place near Clayton. Dat’s whar I wus borned an’ my pappy, my mammy an’ we ’leben chilluns ’longed ter Marse Ransome an’ Mis’ Adeline. Dar wus also young Marse George an’ young Miss Betsy who I ’longed to….

(p.247) We ain’t heard much ’bout de war, nothin’ lak we heard ’bout de world war [the First World War]. I knows dat nobody from our plantation ain’t gone ter dat war case Marse Ransome wus too old an’ Marse George wus a patteroller [a member of a slave patrol], or maybe he wus just too young. Dar wus a little bit of talk but most of it we ain’t heard. I tended to de slave babies, but my mammy what cooked in de big house heard some of de war talk an’ I heard her a-talkin’ to pappy about it. When she seed me a-listenin’ she said dat she’d cut my years off iffen I told it. I had seen some of de slaves wid clipped years an’ I wanted to keep mine, so I ain’t said nothin’.

One day Mis’ Betsy come out ter de yard an’ she sez ter we chilluns, “You has got de habit of runnin’ ter de gate to see who can say howdy first to our company, well de Yankees will be here today or tomorrow an’ dey ain’t our company. In fact iffen yo’ runs ter de gate ter meet dem dey will shoot you dead.”

Ober late dat evenin’ I heard music an’ I runs ter de gate ter see whar it am. Comin’ down de road as fast as dey can I sees a bunch of men wid gray suits on a-ridin’ like de debil. Dey don’t stop at our house at all but later I heard dat dey wus [Confederate general Joseph] Wheeler’s cavalry, de very meanest of de Rebs, though ’tis said dat dey wus brave in battle.

About a hour atter Wheeler’s men come by de Yankees hove into sight. De drums wus beatin’, de flags wavin’ an’ de hosses prancin’ high. We niggers has been teached dat de Yankees will kill us, men women an’ chilluns. De whole hundret or so of us runs an’ hides.

Yes mam, I ’members de blue uniforms an’ de brass buttons, an’ I ’members how dey said as dey come in de gate dat dey has a good as won de war, an’ dat dey ort ter hang de southern men what won’t go ter war.

I reckin dat dey talk puty rough ter Marse Ransome. Anyhow, mammy tells de Yankee Captain dat he ort ter be ’shamed of talkin’ ter a old man like dat. Furder more, she tells dem dat he died en dat’s de way dey’re gwine ter git her freedom, she don’t want it at all. Wid dat mammy takes Mis’ Betsy upstairs whar de Yankees won’t be a-starin’ at her.

One of de Yankees fin’s me an’ axes me how many pairs of shoes I gits a year. I tells him dat I gits one pair. Den he axes me what I wears in de summertime. When I tells him dat I ain’t wear nothin’ but a shirt, an’ dat I goes barefooted in de summer, he cusses awful an’ he damns my marster.

Mammy said dat dey tol’ her an’ pappy dat dey’d git some land an’ a mule iffen dey wus freed. You see dey tried to turn de slaves agin dere marsters.

At de surrender most of de niggers left, but me an’ my family stayed fer wages. We ain’t really had as good as we done before the war, an’ ’cides dat we has ter worry about how we’re goin’ ter live….


George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, 41 vols. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972–79), vol. 11, pt. 2, 199–200