Nellie Chase 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 had awakened 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, to carry out her instructions, and to rely upon 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 provide a much-needed foil for the theoretical proposals of the staunch abolitionist ladies.
Shortly after they arrived in Beaufort, the Gideonite ladies turned to General Stevens' wife for advice on where to find a church service.
"Well," she told them, "those lovely Pennsylvania boys next door always go to church. Perhaps theirs would suit you."
"Soldiers?" Austa French was skeptical.
"They're part of the 100th Pennsylvania Regiment. People call them Roundheads because they are such devoted Presbyterians—some of whom even claim to be descended from Oliver Cromwell's men. They've cleaned up the church in town, and their chaplain preaches every Sunday. I often attend there. Why don't I accompany you?"
As the small band of ladies approached the church, they encountered Colonel Leasure himself, with several of his staff officers. He tipped his hat gallantly and let them precede him through the sanctuary door.
"Who's the pretty young girl with them?" Susan Walker asked. "One of their wives, I suppose."
"Oh, no, that's Nellie Chase. You'll have to meet her. She's one of the bright spots in Beaufort. She's the Roundheads' head nurse and headquarters manager. You won't believe how someone that young can keep a dozen jobs flowing at once, but she's a wonder."
"Really. Where'd they find her?"
"I don't know the whole story, but rumor has it that she is related to Salmon P. Chase."
Susan raised an eyebrow. "Then I surely want to meet her. I told Salmon we were coming here, and he never mentioned having a family member in Beaufort."
"Maybe he didn't know." The last was spoken in a whisper as the congregation settled into the first hymn.
When the service was done, the curious missionaries made straight for Nellie. Mrs. Stevens did her best to introduce them all, but Austa French took over the discussion.
"Margaret tells us that you do a wonderful job of managing your regiment's living arrangements. How does someone so young handle such a task?"
"I have a lot of help. Uncle Joe, our butler, really runs the household and manages our slaves. They are used to obeying him, so that's not a problem. I'm learning to obey him, too." She was smiling at her own simplicity.
But Austa French was not smiling. "Your… slaves, did you say?"
"Yes. An Episcopal minister who was dearly loved by his entire staff owned the house we occupy. He fled with all the other planters when we arrived, but the slaves still think he'll be coming back, and they are doing their best to keep the house and grounds ready for his return. They're well-trained and work hard, so we are really blessed to have them."
"Slaves?" Austa's voice was cold, her eyes even colder. "Did no one tell you why we are fighting this war? Don't you understand that we are here to free the slaves, not to exploit them?"
"But we're not exploiting them. They want to work." Nellie realized that the conversation was becoming dangerous. She looked around trying to catch Colonel Leasure's attention. She needed someone with a bit more authority to counter the force that was Austa French.
As if he had read her mind, Leasure suddenly appeared at her side. "Ladies. We are honored that you have joined us this morning. Reverend Browne was absolutely in his glory with so many lovely faces in his congregation."
"Don't bother with the flattery," Austa snapped. "We're just learning some interesting things about your regiment. Is it true that you're a slave-owner yourself?"
"Certainly not! What on earth gave you that idea?"
"Well, Miss Chase, here, tells us that your slaves really run the house for her."
"Yes, they do. But not because I own them. They've always worked in the Leverett House. Now we pay them to work for us. They're not being treated as slaves. They are Army employees."
"Do they live in the same quarters as they always have? Do they do the same jobs they had before you arrived?"
"Yes, they do, but…"
"Then they are still slaves. Miss Chase knows that. She still refers to them as slaves."
"You think they must be freed. It's a lovely phrase, but what does it mean?"
"They must be set free to go wherever they want and become whatever they want to become."
"And just how would you go about having them do that? With what resources? Where would they go? What skills do they have that are marketable in the real world?"
"That's why we are here. We've come to rescue them from people like you. We'll provide the resources and training, just as soon as you give them up."
Daniel Leasure shook his head in frustration. "No, it's not that easy, Mrs. French. You've only just arrived. You haven't had time to assess matters here. You have to understand that their house and the slave yard are all many of these people have ever known. There's a cemetery in the back of our yard. Some of their grandparents and great-grandparents are buried there. This is home. Driving them away would be more cruel than treating them as slaves."
"Which you admit you do."
"No. We don't think of them as slaves. They are servants. We pay them a small salary, feed them, clothe them, and provide lodging for them and their children. I would not stop any one of them from leaving, if they so chose, but they have no desire or reason to leave."
"They must be freed. You have no choice."
"The law of the land says they are still slaves, Mrs. French. President Lincoln is in no hurry to declare emancipation because he recognizes the problems I'm trying to show you. You can't just send some soldiers in and tell these people to go away and be free. They have to be taught what freedom means, and that will take a long time. We're going to put an end to slavery, but first we have a war to win."
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