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.