April 1862 was also the month in which a group of teachers and missionaries moved into the sea islands to work with the slaves who had been abandoned when the Union Army arrived in South Carolina. the members of this group are the subjects of my upcoming book, The Road to Frogmore. Although the missionaries were staunch abolitionists, they had little idea of the challenges they would face. A Scratch with the Rebels mentioned a few of them.
As the young Gideonites moved onto the abandoned plantations of the Sea Islands, they confronted a myriad of situations for which their college educations had not prepared them. They had arrived with high expectations of cooperation from the local authorities in their efforts to prepare the slaves for freedom. They were dismayed to discover that those seemingly in command could not even cooperate with each other. One new plantation superintendent, Edward S. Phibrick, reported that he had trouble getting the crops handled, because of interference from two sources. Gen. Hunter was trying to call up recruits for his new volunteer troop, and the cotton agents were hiring the men away for fifty cents a day. Philbrick complained that the blacks would wonder off and then return several days later, expecting to see their families and then go back to work: "They are nearly all active young men and are pleased with this roving sort of life, but you may imagine how fatal such a state of thing is to my efforts at organization"
Susan Walker also commented on the clashes over conflicting authorities: "I fear the cotton agent, Salisbury, stationed here is not a good man. The Negroes complain of him, and they all look so neglected it is quite evident he has done no good upon the plantation. He drives the finest horses I have seen in Port Royal or St. Helena, gives good dinners, entertains largely, has appropriated all the furniture and nearly all the teams about the place and refuses to give anything to the superintendents placed there by Mr. Pierce."
Such complaints and others reflected the various misapprehensions under which the missionaries and other Northern authorities labored in their early efforts to handle the problems of the abandoned slaves. Susan Walker found her duties frustrating. Her first impression of her pupils was that they were "ragged and dirty" but polite, welcoming, more eager for books than for clothes. She was a teacher by training and an abolitionist by conscience, and the abolitionist in her believed that to hand out charity to the blacks would be to deny them their inherent equality. At the same time, she could not ignore the lack of "social graces" that set them apart from other students she had known. She was encouraged on the one hand by their receptiveness but repelled by their lack of basic hygiene. Soon she was sending at least half of them home from her makeshift classroom each morning to wash their hands and faces before she would teach them. Not long after her arrival, she visited the Jenkins' plantation, about eight miles away, where she met a very pregnant slave woman whose problems overwhelmed her. "Katy has 7 ragged, dirty children—what shall be done? No husband and nothing. Some clothes are given for her children—one naked, and must have it at once. Is Katy lazy? Very likely. Does she tell the truth? Perhaps not. I must have faith, and she must at least cover her children."
Philbrick's reaction was somewhat more admiring, although he recognized that his wife might have reservations about working with the former slaves. He warned her that she could not bring a servant with her if she chose to join him: "There are plenty of servants here, which you are supposed to teach not only to read but—what is more immediately important—to be cleanand industrious. If you feel any hesitation about coming in contact with them you shouldn't come, for they are sharp enough to detect apathy or lurking repugnance, which would render any amount of theoretical sympathy about worthless."
Perhaps because he looked for signs that a slave was fully capable of full citizenship, he found much to commend: "Think of their having reorganized and gone deliberately to work here some weeks ago, without a white man near them, preparing hundreds of acres for the new crop! The Irish wouldn't have done as much in the same position."