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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

April 2016

Laura Towne: Answer to a Slave's Prayer

So how did a woman who refused to fit in manage to leave a legacy of changing her world?  Well,  let’s look at her personal quirks from a different angle.  While Laura Towne was not ever going to find a real home in Philadelphia, the Low Country of South Carolina became her natural habitat.
The teachers and abolitionists who took part in what was called the Port Royal Experiment were forced into some very strange living arrangements as they settled into abandoned plantations.  There were a few married couples among them, and a couple of brother-sister groups, but for the most part, they were all single and needed to share accommodations, both for safety and in order to provide all the varied services they wanted to offer to the newly freed slaves.  So no one regarded Laura and her life-long companion, Ellen Murray, as anything other than natural housemates.  As time went by Laura and Ellen were able to purchase a small house they could call their own, and they lived together as a family with combined resources without raising a single eyebrow.
Laura’s brand of homeopathic medicine was exactly what the freed slaves needed.  They often had their own remedies for illnesses, but like most people, they wanted to be cared for, and Laura offered that.  One slave woman remarked that Laura could make you feel better just by walking into a room. Her experiments with homeopathic remedies also made her more open to considering alternate forms of medicine. She was shocked the first time she found a slave’s  leg wound covered in honey.  But when she realized that it was healing with no sign of infection, she was willing to adopt the use of honey as one of her remedies. Because she was caring and non-critical, the slaves accepted her ministrations but rejected traditional doctors.
Similarly, Laura’s Unitarian faith made her more accepting of the slave traditions.  She delighted in the Shout, a quasi-religious celebration that gave slaves a chance to express the feelings they had to keep hidden most of the time. She did not demand that her patients and students follow her own brand of religion, as so many of the missionaries did.  She urged open worship services and actively worked to get rid of any pastor who arrived with notions of converting the slaves to his own peculiar brand of religion.
It was only natural that people who had been slaves all their lives would welcome an abolitionist who demanded getting rid of all forms of slavery.  But Laura went further than that.  She strongly believed what others only preached.  Every abolitionist praised freedom and equality, but all too often, they meant that slaves had freedom to do as they were told and that they were equal to each other but not to their betters. Laura had a strong belief that if a black child received the same education as a white child, they would be equal in every way.  Others wanted to teach the former slaves how to be cleaner, how to raise more cotton, or how to run a small shop or create crafts.  Laura offered them Latin, composition, algebra, history, and geography, and the children flocked to her schools.
In short, the very qualities that had kept Laura from fitting into Philadelphia’s high society were the qualities that former slaves could value.  And that, perhaps, is what allows such a woman to become a world-changer.  She remained true to her core beliefs and used them for the betterment of those around her.

The Road to Frogmore,  a biographical novel by Carolyn P. Schriber, was published in 2012. In 2013, it won a Silver Medal from The Military Writers Society of America. A digital version will be available for free in the Kindle Store from Monday, April 25, 2016, through Wednesday, April 27, 2016. Don’t miss this chance to read the story of a remarkable woman.  

Laura Towne: Misfit

For all of her adult life (and much of her childhood as well), Laura Towne had known that she did not fit in with the society around her.  If someone had told her that in 150 years she would be touted as an example of a woman who made a permanent difference in the world, she would not have believed it.  Nor would she have believed that anyone would ever write a book about her life.  She knew she was different; she just didn’t know that being different was going to make her important. I see her as an example of how women can change their world. 
Laura’s world demanded that women fulfill one of two roles in society.  She could either marry and become a dutiful wife and doting mother, or she could remain in the family home as the caretaker of her parents, the support of her brothers and sisters, the family anchor. Laura wanted no part of either one.  She could not bring herself to be subordinate to a man, especially one who was not as intelligent or capable as she was.  She loved children but wanted to encourage them to flee the nest, not hover over them as protector. Her mother died when she was nine, her father when she was in her early twenties, so there was no need to take on the role of caregiver.  And she had no interest in encouraging her siblings to lean on her any more than they already did. She cherished a close friendship with another woman whom she considered her equal in every way.  She dreamed of sharing their lives, but knew that while Philadelphia society might allow two women to live together, they would never give their relationship the status of family. She thought she would always live a solitary existence, without the bonds of love and affection that sustained other people.
Laura wanted a career, even though she knew that there were few career options open to her.  She petitioned for years to be allowed to attend medical school, and finally found admission in Philadelphia’s first medical school for women.  There she was allowed to attend academic classes and lectures, but barred from any clinical experience on the grounds that women should never see the body of a man other than their husbands or children. Frustrated with the lack of contact with patients, she gave up her pursuit of a medical degree and turned to the study of homeopathic medicine, which put her even further outside the boundaries of acceptable careers. Most trained doctors looked down on homeopathy as quackery, but Laura found much to like.  It allowed her to be in close contact with her patients; treating them as individuals, not  cases; offering comfort and palliative care; and avoiding the harshness of dangerous medicines, quick amputation, or blood-letting.
Laura was a non-conformist when it came to religion, too.  In a city involved with evangelism in all its many forms, as well as a city that had been founded by Quakers, Laura was a Unitarian.  What was that?  The question bothered other people, too.  Unitarians believed in one God.  Only one, not a Trinity, which seemed to make them non-Christians.  They disliked dogma, official church doctrine, and any and creeds.  They believed religion should be a quiet and private affair.  They were ethical and reasonable, believers in free will, and flexible in their religious observances.  They were particularly irritating to traditional Christians because they denied the divinity of Jesus while following his teachings more closely than most Christians did.
Finally, there was the matter of politics.  Women did not have the right to vote and  were not expected to have political opinions.  They certainly were not expected to speak out about their views. But Laura was an abolitionist, and an outspoken one at that.  She was not afraid to express her hatred of slavery and demanded equality for all people, including women.  Abolitionists were usually northerners, but they were no more popular in the north they were in the south.  Workers feared an influx of free blacks would take away their jobs, while the wealthy feared attacks from those who had much less than they did. Laura the abolitionist was one of a very few uppity women who were hated by nearly everyone.

The Road to Frogmore,  a biographical novel by Carolyn P. Schriber, was published in 2012. In 2013, it won a Silver Medal from The Military Writers Society of America. A digital version will be available for free in the Kindle Store from Monday, April 25, 2016, through Wednesday, April 27, 2016. Don’t miss this chance to read the story of a remarkable woman.  

A Remarkable Woman You've Probably Never Heard of. . .

Miss Laura M. Towne was a Unitarian, an Abolitionist, and a medical student.  In 1862, at the age of 37, she left her Philadelphia home to travel to the Sea Islands of South Carolina.  Her purpose: to do whatever she could to help the newly freed slaves become useful and productive citizens.The Road to Frogmore, published in 2012, tells the story of the first few years she spent in South Carolina during the Civil War.

 Laura Town and her life-long friend Ellen Murray joined the Port Royal Experiment in 1862 to test their abolitionist ideals against the realities of slaves abandoned by their owners in the Low Country of South Carolina. They hoped to find a place they could call home, as well as an outlet for their talents as schoolteacher and doctor.. It seemed like a good idea at the time, until . . . 

. . . until they experienced the climate—violent storms spawned over the Atlantic, searing heat, tainted by swamp gasses, cockroaches, bedbugs, swarming mosquitoes,and the pesky “no-see-ums” that left nasty bites in their wake. 

. . . until they met the slaves themselves—full of fear and resentment of white people caused by centuries of cruelty, slaves who had never seen the outside world, slaves whose superstitions included breath-sucking night hags, evil graybeards living in local trees, and unfree spirits rolling down the roads at night in balls of fire. 

. . . until the dedication of the missionaries found itself tested by lack of food, furniture, medicine, and the bare necessities of life. Until the unity of the abolitionist effort fell apart under the strains of religious differences and unrecognized prejudices. 

. . . and until the combination of battle wounds and a raging smallpox epidemic made death their constant companion. Could these two independent women survive the Civil War and achieve their goal of turning slaves into citizens?

In the next couple of days, you'll have a chance to meet some of the real people with whom she worked--and those against whom she had to struggle in order to establish the kind of school she wanted to provide for the children she loved.

The Road to Frogmore,  a biographical novel by Carolyn P. Schriber, won a Silver Medal from The Military Writers Society of America in 2013. A digital version will be available for free in the Kindle Store from Monday, April 25, 2016, through Wednesday, April 27, 2016. Don’t miss this chance to read the story of a remarkable woman.  

A Spring in (or on) My Step

For most of my life, I have not been particularly excited about Spring. Perhaps it has to do with being an academic. Whether you are a student, facing final exams that could determine your future, or the teacher with piles of exams and stacks of term papers to plow through before an unreasonably short deadline, Spring can be a stressful and hectic season--not one to encourage baby plants. 

Growing up in Ohio also introduced me to how dirty piles of slush can be by April. When we lived in Panama City Beach, Spring only meant hordes of drunken spring-breakers. Moving to Ontario for four years brought no relief--no college students tearing up the countryside but that was because it was still buried in snow. Then came the real heart-breaker--Colorado. The weather warmed, we gave into the impulse to plant something, and then would come the inevitable snowstorm, measured not in inches but in feet. We learned to move part of the woodpile into the garage so that we could access enough to keep a fire going when the power went out for days. Even my birthday in May was usually cancelled because of blizzards.

But now -- finally -- in my dotage -- I'm finding real pleasure in springtime. The azaleas growing outside my living room window have been in full blaze for the past three weeks and show no signs of fading yet. I adore opening the shutters every morning to a blanket of pink and coral. The real test, however, comes right outside my front door. Because I live in a condo community with full lawn and garden service, we are not allowed to plant anything. Now, don't get me wrong. I love those fellows who show up regularly to mow, weed, rake, and trim the bushes. But the inborn impulse to plant something is still strong. So I make do with a grouping of pots, which is allowed (within reason). 

Yesterday was gardening day and I loved every muscle-straining moment of it. I was at the garden shop early in the morning (as was a good portion of the total population of Memphis!), because it was the first guaranteed frost-free weekday of the year.  A quick survey of the front porch before I set out had revealed that much of last year's crop had survived the winter. My summer mums and pansies already had new buds and blossoms. Chives, parsley, oregano, and thyme were not only alive, they were already filling their pots -- the thyme so vigorous that I could not lift the pot because its roots had grown through the drainage holes into the surrounding grass. I had a lot of picking and choosing to get through.

I came home with a big bush tomato plant, eight basil plants, and a geranium to fill the last few sunny spots at the edge of the porch. For the porch itself, almost always in the shade, I picked up some lobelias and impatiens to plant around my little potted juniper bush and a huge Boston fern for the table. (I wanted a small one, but they evidently don't come in size small!)

And if you look closely at the last two pictures, you'll see that I had good supervision for all my planting. That's Nutmeg at the door, checking to see if I remembered to pick up some catnip. Sorry, cat!

My Butterfly Moment

Several years ago people were talking about the "butterfly effect"--the idea that a single butterfly in South America might flutter its wings and put into motion a series of events that would ultimately change the world. It has become a truism, so obvious that we now often forget to look back at the small events from long ago that changed our own lives.

I was reminded of such a butterfly moment today. April 12, 2016, is the 177th birthday of a little boy named James McCaskey. James was born on a hardscrabble farm in southwest Pennsylvania, the first child of John and Jane McCaskey, Scotch-Irish immigrants to America. The family grew to include six more children, the youngest of whom was Joseph McCaskey, my maternal grandfather. James and his siblings attended a one-room schoolhouse, where they learned a few fundamental skills such as reading and writing, but James, at least, never mastered the art of spelling.

In August 1861, he left the farm to enlist in the Union Army, and, with his neighbors in the 100th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment, set out  to invade coastal South Carolina. During his first real battle, just ten months later, at a little earthwork on the middle of a swamp on James Island, he died. A cannon ball blew off both of his legs and he quickly bled to death. His remains were shoveled into a mass grave with the bodies of almost 500 others right there in front of the earthworks, where they remain to this day. The only things he left behind were six badly spelled letters to his family and the still tear-stained letter from his commander, telling of his death.

Those letters passed from his parents to my grandparents, and from them into the hands of their youngest daughter, my mother, who tossed them into an old trunk in the attic, where they remained until I found them about 1977.

Eventually those letters formed the basis of my first Civil War book, A Scratch with the Rebels, which tells the story of James's regiment and the Battle of Secessionville that took his life. Beyond All Price is the story of the  nurse who accompanied the 100th Pennsylvania Regiment to South Carolina. The Road to Frogmore expands the story to tell of the meeting of the Union Army and the slaves abandoned by their Confederate owners. Damned Yankee is a historical novel based on the real family who owned one of the houses where the 100th Pennsylvania made their headquarters. And Yankee Reconstructed carries the story further into the era of Reconstruction.

There the books are at the top of this page. Who could have known on that April morning in 1839 that the life of that squalling newborn baby would spawn an outpouring of  slightly over a half a million words that readers would still be enjoying in 2016? Or that another baby born almost exactly 100 years later into a future generation of the same family would grow up to become a writer fascinated by the stories of South Carolina in the Civil War?