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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

October 2010

Meeting Susan Walker

Another member of the original "Gideon's Band" was socialite Susan Walker.  She was traveling as a companion of Rev. and Mrs. French, but her purposes could not have been more different.  In her obituary, someone described her as: "a philanthropist, politician. mathematician, abolitionist, strong-minded woman . . . of somewhat masculine appearance, with a large frame, dominated by a powerful intellect, and unusually quick sympathies." While the Frenches were fervent evangelical missionaries, Susan Walker was a Unitarian abolitionist. 

Susan was the only daughter among several sons in a prominent and well-to-do Masssachusetts family.  She had had a first-rate education and was also a world traveler.  She counted among her friends most well-known Boston abolitionists, as well as many of the leading politicians under Lincoln.  She was on first-name terms with Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury; William H. Seward, Secretary of State;  Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War; Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts; and Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts. In fact, on this trip, she carried a special charge: to report directly to Chase on the successes and failure of the mission.

Susan had trouble from the start, finding no common ground among the other missionaries.  Her journal attempts to make light of the deprivations they found on St. Helena Island -- houses ransacked, no usable furniture, meager rations, and overcrowded living arrangements.  She had more difficulty accepting the roles assigned to her.  Could she sort the used clothing they had brought to distribute to the slaves? Of course, but many of the clothes were dirty or stained, and she found handling them distasteful. Could she take charge of the housekeeping chores?  Of course, except that she had never had to "keep house" and had no idea where to start.  Could she teach the slave children?  Of course, if only they children would behave like serious scholars in the classroom.  Could she work with the women?  Of course, if only they would quit thinking like slaves.

She would have much preferred to do some of the tasks expected of the men in their group.  She could have easily handled the business of a cotton agent or taken over the planning for land distribution, but such positions  were not open to her.  Within weeks, she was talking of going home, where she could be of more use.  The approaching hot summer made an excellent excuse, and she left on June 9, 1862, just three months after joining the effort.

Will she be important to this book? Certainly.  She represents one side of an intellectual/evangelical battle that hindered everything that the teacher-missionaries tried to do.  Fervent abolitionist though she was, her reactions to the realities of a slave-based culture reveal deep-seated and erroneous northern assumptions about the nature of the slave population.  Beyond that, she's going to make a wonderful foil for the pasionately silly Austa Fench.



Meeting Austa French

Meeting Austa French

The first of the Gideonite women I'll be including in my new book is Austa French, wife of Mansfield French.  Her husband was a Methodist minister and early proponent of the theory that ex-slaves should be educated and trained to take full part in the privileges of citizenship. Mansfield and Austa were among the first group of missionaries and teachers sent to South Carolina from New York by the National Freedmen's Relief Association.

Austa, I can already see, is going to give me problems.  She is in many ways a Yankee superwoman.  Highly educated, prominent in society, a beautiful singing voice, the mother of seven children, an experienced teacher, and a writer--she set out  at the age of 52 to spread the gospel of abolitionism.  And "gospel" it was to her.  She prided herself on having grown to be an evangelical pastor's wife after her fairly restrained Congregationalist background.  Her "calling" during the Civil War was to reveal the evils of slavery to the people of the North. OK, so far, so good. But then I come face to face with her unrestrained enthusiasm, her volubility, her humorless determination that the rest of the world will surely come to see things her way, if she can just lecture them long and hard enough.  Historians who write about her tend to describe her (and her husband, too) as the people the rest of the Gideonites would have liked to slap.  Drawing no distinctions between outright crimes, actions she disapproved of, religious beliefs she did not share, and mistakes that needed gentle correction, she was given to loud public denunciations of all behaviors that irritated her.  (And it took very little to irritate her, as Susan Walker learned the evening she was too tired from her labors to kneel during one of Austa's interminable prayers.) Austa loved the slaves indiscriminately.  She was known to greet a new black acquaintance by throwing he arms around her neck, weeping on her shoulder, and calling her "my sister" before she had even learned the woman's name.  But as for the rest of the world, few of her associates lived up to her standards.  She was quick to refer to "the dirty Irish," "white trash," "greedy cotton agents," and "thugs in military uniforms."  And she hated South Carolina, pointing to the Spanish moss, the swamps, and the huge black crows as evidence of the evil that permeated every inch of the lands that had harbored slavery.

Then there's her book: Slavery in South Carolina.  She began writing it almost immediately upon her arrival on Beaufort, long before she had had time or experience to inform her writing.  She encouraged the slaves to compete with each other in telling her the most lurid stories of atrocities committed against them.  To be fair to Austa, there is no evidence that she made up any of the stories on her own.  She simply recorded what she was told.  If she picked and chose among the details, however, it was only to be sure she included all the tales with some sexual component or gory physical details.  For a devout Christian missionary, she skirted very close to the edge of writing pornography.

I'll want to be fair to her.  One of my favorite writers of historical fiction has pointed out the novelist's responsibility to do no harm to historical figures.  But it seems to me that Austa has done a fairly good job of casting shadows on her own character.

Making Connections

I've been reading diaries and letters for the past few days, trying to get to know the women who will inhabit my next book, Gideon's Ladies.  I've met Charlotte Forten Grimke, Laura M. Towne, Ellen Murray, Harriet Ware, Austa French, and Susan Walker so far, along with some of the men in their party.  Each one is a fascinating personality -- and so different, one from another.  And their very differences brought me to an unexpected conclusion:  I'm not through with Nellie Chase yet.

Yes, Nellie, a bit player in A Scratch with the Rebels  and the main character from Beyond All Price.  I thought I had her safely buried, but here she is again!  The new book will deal in depth with the whole issue of slavery, and Nellie was one of the first women to have to decide how to handle the problems presented by newly-freed slaves.  She was already "on the ground," so to speak, when the Gideonites and missionaries arrived in South Carolina.  She met the missionaries; she talked with them; she admired some of what they proposed; but their solutions were not hers. 

On her very first morning in Beaufort, SC, Nellie awoke to discover that the house to which she had been assigned came complete with an extensive staff of house slaves.  Even more startling was the discovery that the slaves immediately looked to her to take over the position of "mistress" -- running the house and giving them their instructions.  That was more than she had expected to take on as a Union Army nurse.  The black butler wasted no time in teaching her two lessons: (1) a woman is always in charge of what goes on in a house; men take over as masters only in matters outside of the house, and (2) the slaves were "playing a role" and they expected her to play her own role, too. 

So there she was -- 22 years old, meeting her first Negroes and finding that they were her own slaves -- people who expected to wait upon her, carry out her instructions, and look to her to solve all their problems and provide all their needs.  To her credit, Nellie coped beautifully.  She learned quickly how to play the role of plantation mistress, but she never gave in to the worst aspects of the situation.  She genuinely liked and cared for her slaves.  She improved their living conditions and their diets, provided them with gifts to make their lives easier, respected their dignity, cared for their ills with as much concern as she would give to the soldiers of the regiment, and tried to learn more about their African heritage.

In the eyes of the Gideonites, however, she was no better than a Southern woman, taking advantage of the slaves and continuing to consign them to bondage.  Nellie could not believe that her choices were wrong.  She sensed immediately that this particular group of slaves had a strong attachment to the house and grounds where they worked.  Many of them had been there all their lives.  "Freeing them" would have meant uprooting them, and that was something she was unwilling to do. 

Nellie's solutions, of course, were only temporary expedients.  She had no abolitionist background, and she was not thinking in terms of long-range problems. Her choices will, I think, provide a much-needed foil for the theoretical proposals of my staunch abolitionist ladies.

Sometimes You Just Have To Hide For A While

It's been almost a month since I've added anything to this blog.  As my military husband would tell me, there's no excuse for going AWOL, but I do apologize to anyone who has wandered by here, hoping for a new post.

So what have I been up to?  Well, start with the book launch.  It went on for three days, which was probably a day too long.  By the time it got to be 10:00 pm on Friday night, and I could shut down, I was thoroughly drained. We did get an incredible response.  Nearly 900 different viewers visited the launch website during that time.  Sales were "so-so." It's hard to keep up with what's being ordered on my site, Amazon, my Amazon Associates page, Kindle, and Smashwords, and some of the purchases came after the actual launch period.  So far, I can say this.  I've sold out of my first 100-book order and have just opened a new shipment. Amazon figures are still not in, but there were 38 downloads from Smashwords.  I'm encouraged that people are still visiting the Katzenhaus site, which I've just  updated, by the way, and that books are beginning to circulate.  I'm looking ahead to at least three book-signing opportunities before Christmas.

Three days after the launch, we left for an eight-day trip to Milwaukee for the USA/Canada Lions Leadership Forum.  That's the big conference that Floyd and I hosted here last  year.  It was lovely to be one of the attendees instead of the person everyone screamed at when there was a problem. We also enjoyed getting out of the Memphis heat (103 degrees the day we left here) and discovering that late September really does mean fall is here.  No only did we bring some cooler weather back with us.  Four days after our return from Wisconsin, we were on our way to the Smokies for a three-day meeting in Townsend, TN., and we found even more cool weather -- trees turning, smoke rising from chimneys in the mornings, and even reports of a dusting of snowon one of the higher mountain peaks.  Lovely!

Now I'm busy with research for the next book.  (I'm finding that there is always a "next book' waiting!) There's  an amazing group of northern women who traveled to the Low Country of South Carolina in 1862.  They were missionaries, teachers, and doctors -- all hoping to do their bit to improve conditions for the slaves who had been left behind when the southern planters fled the Low Country when the Union invaded. "Beyond All Price" began to explore the problem of how to handle emancipation, but these women were in the front lines.  Their reactions differed widely.  A couple found they were totally unsuited to the task and went home within weeks.  Others struggled with the problems until poor health drove them out.  Other stayed but clashed with one another over what the former slaves needed most -- formal education? religious instruction? health care? encouragement to adapt white culture? help with preserving their own African heritage?  These questions, and the conflicting solutions reflect in microcosm the problems faced by the US government when it came time to act on matters of emancipation and reconstruction.  Fortunately, many of them left behind diaries, journals, and letters, so getting to know them should be fun. I'll tell you about a few of them in upcoming posts.