Charles C. Coffin: Four Years of Fighting


Charles C. Coffin: Four Years of Fighting

▪ Primary Source
      Autobiographies written by Union soldiers and journalists often included accounts of conversations with newly-freed slaves; the section of Sherman's memoir covering the March and occupation of Savannah contains no fewer than three. Charles Coffin, a reporter for the Boston Journal who entered Savannah with the Union forces in December 1864, provided one of the more interesting and well-written examples of the genre in his Four Years of Fighting. It reveals some of the personal ambiguities created by slavery as Dolly Lunt Burge's diary, but seen from a different perspective; unlike Burge, however, Coffin also gives a reader a glimpse of the personal pain slavery caused.

      

      

Chapter XXV: Scenes in Savannah.

      

      As I intended to spend some days in Savannah, I set out one afternoon in search of lodgings more commodious than those furnished at the Pulaski House, and I was directed to a house owned by a gentleman who, during the war, had resided in Paris,—a large brick mansion, fronting on one of the squares, elegantly finished and furnished. It had been taken care of, through the war, by two faithful negroes, Robert and his wife Aunt Nellie, both of them slaves.

      I rang the bell, and was ushered into the basement by their daughter Ellen, also a slave. Robert was fifty-three years of age,—a tall, stout, coal-black, slow-spoken, reflective man. Aunt Nellie was a year or two younger. Her features were of the African type; her eyes large and lustrous. Her deportment was lady-like, her language refined. She wore a gingham dress, and a white turban.

      Ellen, the daughter, had a fair countenance, regular features, of lighter hue than either father or mother. She appeared as much at ease as most young ladies who are accustomed to the amenities of society.

      Aunt Nellie called me by name.

      "I saw you yesterday at church," she said.

      She placed a chair for me before the fire, which burned cheerfully on the hearth. There was a vase of amaranths on the mantel, and lithographs on the walls. A clock ticked in one corner. There were cushioned arm-chairs. The room was neat and tidy, and had an air of cheerfulness. A little boy, four or five years old, was sitting by the side of Aunt Nellie,—her grand-nephew. He looked up wonderingly at the stranger, then gazed steadily into the fire with comical gravity.

      "You are from Boston, I understand," said Aunt Nellie. "I never have been to Boston, but I have been to New York several times with my master."

      "Did you have any desire to stay North?"

      "No, sir, I can't say that I had. This was my home; my children and friends, and my husband were all here."

      "But did you not wish to be free?"

      "That is a very different thing, sir. God only knows how I longed to be free; but my master was very kind. They used to tell me in New York that I could be free; but I could n't make up my mind to leave master, and my husband. Perhaps if I had been abused as some of my people have, I should have thought differently about it."

      "Well, you are free now. I suppose that you never expected to see such a day as this!"

      "I can't say that I expected to see it, but I knew it would come. I have prayed for it. I did n't hardly think it would come in my time, but I knew it must come, for God is just."

      "Did you not sometimes despair?"

      "Never! sir; never! But O, it has been a terrible mystery, to know why the good Lord should so long afflict my people, and keep them in bondage,—to be abused, and trampled down, without any rights of their own,—with no ray of light in the future. Some of my folks said there was n't any God, for if there was he would n't let white folks do as they have done for so many years; but I told them to wait,—and now they see what they have got by waiting. I told them that we were all of one blood,—white folks and black folks all come from one man and one woman, and that there was only one Jesus for all. I knew it,—I knew it!" She spoke as if it were an indisputable fact which had come by intuition.

      Here Aunt Nellie's sister and her husband came in.

      "I hope to make your better acquaintance," she said, courtesying. It is a common form of expression among the colored people of some parts of the South. She was larger, taller, and stouter than Aunt Nellie, younger in years, less refined,—a field hand,—one who had drunk deeply of the terrible cup which slavery had held to her lips. She wore a long gray dress of coarse cloth,—a frock with sleeves, gathered round the neck with a string,—the cheapest possible contrivance for a dress, her only garment, I judged.

      "These are new times to you," I said.

      "It is a dream, sir,—a dream! 'Pears like I don't know where I am. When General Sherman come and said we were free, I did n't believe it, and I would n't believe it till the minister (Rev. Mr. French) told us that we were free. It don't seem as if I was free, sir." She looked into the fire a moment, and sat as if in a dream, but roused herself as I said,—

      "Yes, you are free."

      "But that don't give me back my children,—my children, that I brought forth with pains such as white women have,—that have been torn from my breast, and sold from me; and when I cried for them was tied up and had my back cut to pieces!"

      She stopped talking to me, raised her eyes as if looking into heaven,—reached up her hands imploringly, and cried in agony,—

      "O Lord Jesus, have mercy! How long, O Lord? Come, Jesus, and help me. 'Pears like I can't bear it, dear Lord. They is all taken from me, Lord. 'Pears like as if my heart would break. O blessed Jesus, they say that I am free, but where are my children!—my children!—my children!"

      Her hands fell,—tears rolled down her cheeks. She bowed her head, and sat moaning, wailing, and sobbing.

      "You would n't believe me," said Aunt Nellie, speaking to her. "You said that there was no use in praying for deliverance; that it was no use to trust God,—that he had forgotten us!"

      She rose and approached her sister, evidently to call her mind from the terrible reality of the past. "You used to come in here and go worry, worry, worry all day and all night, and say it was no use; that you might as well die; that you would be a great deal better off if you were dead. You would n't believe me when I said that the Lord would give deliverance. You would n't believe that the Lord was good; but just see what he has done for you,—made you free. Are n't you willing to trust him now?"

      The sister made no reply, but sat wiping away her tears, and sighing over the fate of her children.

      "Did you not feel sometimes like rising against your masters?" I asked of the husband.

      "Well, sir, I did feel hard sometimes, and I reckon that if it had n't been for the grace which Jesus gave us we should have done so; but he had compassion on us, and helped us to bear it. We knew that he would hear us some time."

      "Did you ever try to escape?"

      "No, sir. I was once interested in colonization, and talked of going to Africa,—of buying myself, and go there and be free. Rev. Mr. Gurley came here and gave a lecture. He was the agent of the Colonization Society, I reckon; but just then there was so much excitement among the slaves about it, that our masters put a stop to it."

      "The good people of Boston are heaping coals of fire on the heads of the slaveholders and Rebels," said Aunt Nellie.

      "How so?" I asked.

      "Why, as soon as General Sherman took possession of the city, you send down ship-loads of provisions to them. They have fought you with all their might, and you whip them, and then go to feeding them."

      "I 'spect you intended that black and white folks should have them alike," said her sister.

      "Yes, that was the intention."

      "Not a mouthful have I had. I am as poor as white folks. All my life I have worked for them. I have given them houses and lands; they have rode in their fine carriages, sat in their nice parlors, taken voyages over the waters, and had money enough, which I and my people earned for them. I have had my back cut up. I have been sent to jail because I cried for my children, which were stolen from me. I have been stripped of my clothing, exposed before men. My daughters have been compelled to break God's commandment,—they could n't help themselves,—I could n't help them; white men have done with us just as they pleased. Now they turn me out of my poor old cabin, and say they own it. O dear Jesus, help me!"

      "Come, come, sister, don't take on; but you just give thanks for what the Lord has done for you," said Aunt Nellie.

      Her sister rose, stately as a queen, and said,—

      "I thank you, sir, for your kind words to me to-night. I thank all the good people in the North for what they have done for me and my people. The good Lord be with you."

      As she and her husband left the room, Aunt Nellie said,—

      "Poor girl! she can't forget her children. She's cried for them day and night."

      . . .

      The night of the 28th of January was a fearful one in Savannah. The inhabitants experienced all the terror of a bombardment combined with the horror of a great conflagration. A fire broke out a little before midnight in a long row of wooden buildings at the west end of the city. The wind was fresh from the northwest, and the night exceedingly cold. My rooms were in the Pulaski House. I was awakened by a sudden explosion, which jarred the house, and heard the cry that the arsenal was on fire.

      There was another explosion,—then a volley of shells, and large fragments came whirring through the air, striking the walls, or falling with a heavy plunge into the street.

      "There are three thousand shells in the building," said a soldier running past, fleeing as if for his life.

      "There are fifty tons of powder, which will go off presently," said another, in breathless haste. Fifty tons of powder! Savannah would be racked to its foundations! There would be a general crumbling of walls. Men, women, and children were running,—crying, and in fear of being crushed beneath the ruins of falling buildings.

      It was the Rebel arsenal. I could not believe that the Rebels would store fifty tons of powder in the city, and waited for the general explosion. It did not come. Gradually I worked my way, under the shelter of buildings, towards the fire. The fire-engines were deserted, and the fire was having its own way, licking up the buildings, one after another, remorselessly.

      It was a gorgeous sight,—the flames leaping high in air, thrown up in columns by the thirteen-inch shells, filling the air with burning timbers, cinders, and myriads of sparks. The streets were filled with fugitives. The hospitals were being cleared of sick and wounded, the houses of furniture.

      It was grand, but terrible. General Grover at once took measures to arrest the progress of the flames, by tearing down buildings, and bringing up several regiments, which, with the citizens and negroes, succeeded in mastering the destroying element.

      In the morning there was a wilderness of chimneys, and the streets were strewn with furniture.

      It was amusing to see with what good humor and nonchalance the colored people and the soldiers regarded the conflagration.

      Two negro women passed me, carrying great bundles on their heads.

      "I's clean burned out," said one.

      "So is I"; and they both laughed as if it was very funny.

      "Let 'em burn: who cares?" said one soldier. "They have fought us, and now let 'em suffer."

      "We have got to do guard duty, and it is a little more comfortable to be quartered in a house than to sleep in a shelter-tent, so let us save the place," said another; and the two went to work with a will to subdue the flames.

      . . .

      Society in the South, and especially in Savannah, had undergone a great change. The extremes of social life were very wide apart before the war; they were no nearer the night before Sherman marched into the city; but the morning after there was a convulsion, an upheaval, a shaking up and a settling down of all the discordant elements. The tread of that army of the West, as it moved in solid column through the streets, was like a moral earthquake, overturning aristocratic pride, privilege, and power.

      Old houses, with foundations laid deep and strong in the centuries, fortified by wealth, name, and influence, went down beneath the shock. The general disruption of the former relations of master and slave, and forced submission to the Union arms, produced a common level. A reversal of the poles of the earth would hardly have produced a greater physical convulsion than this sudden and unexpected change in the social condition of the people of the city.

      On the night before Sherman entered the place there were citizens who could enumerate their wealth by millions; at sunrise the next morning they were worth scarcely a dime. Their property had been in cotton, negroes, houses, land, Confederate bonds and currency, railroad and bank stocks. Government had seized their cotton; the negroes had possession of their lands; their slaves had become freemen; their houses were occupied by troops; Confederate bonds were waste paper; their railroads were destroyed; their banks insolvent. They had not only lost wealth, but they had lost their cause. And there were some who were willing to confess that they had been fighting for a system of iniquity.

      

      

Source: Charles Carleton Coffin, Four Years of Fighting (1866).

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