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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Thomas Dabney, a Planter of the Old Time

By Susan Dabney Smedes (1840–1913)

[Born in Raymond, Hinds Co., Miss., 1840. Died in Sewanee, Tenn., 1913. Memorials of a Southern Planter. 1887.]

THE WAR ended in April. The news of Lincoln’s assassination came a short time previous to this, and was received with deep regret by Thomas. “He was the best friend that we had,” he said, “and his death was the greatest calamity that could have befallen the South.”

It was no longer Thomas’s duty to spend a part of his time in Montgomery, Alabama. He was at Burleigh when he heard of General Lee’s surrender. On the day that the news reached him, he called his son Thomas to him, and they rode together to the field where the negroes were at work. He informed them of the news that had reached him, and that they were now free. His advice was that they should continue to work the crop as they had been doing. At the end of the year they should receive such compensation for their labor as he thought just.

From this time till January 1, 1866, no apparent change took place among the Burleigh negroes. Those who worked in the fields went out as usual, and cultivated and gathered in the crops. In the house, they went about their customary duties. We expected them to go away, or to demand wages, or at least to give some sign that they knew they were free. But, except that they were very quiet and serious, and more obedient and kind than they had ever been known to be for more than a few weeks, at a time of sickness or other affliction, we saw no change in them.

At Christmas such compensation was made them for their services as seemed just. Afterwards fixed wages were offered and accepted. Thomas called them up now and told them that as they no longer belonged to him they must discontinue calling him “master.”

“Yes, marster,” “yes, marster,” was the answer to this. “They seem to bring in ‘master’ and say it oftener than they ever did,” was his comment, as he related the occurrence to his children. This was true. The name seemed to grow into a term of endearment. As time went on, and under the changed order of things, negroes whom he had never known became tenants on his plantation; these new people called him master also. This was unprecedented in the South, I think. They were proud of living on his place, on account of the good name that he had won for himself as a master. Not infrequently they were heard to express a regret that they had not belonged to him, when they saw the feeling that existed between himself and his former slaves. Sometimes he came to us with a puzzled look to ask who those negroes were who had just called him old master and shaken hands with him.

“I cannot recall their faces,” he would say; “surely, I never owned them.”

Finally the negroes on the neighboring plantations, and wherever he went, came to call him old master. They seemed to take pride in thus claiming a relationship with him, as it were; and he grew accustomed to the voluntary homage.

He had come home to a house denuded of nearly every article of furniture, and to a plantation stripped of the means of cultivating any but a small proportion of it. A few mules and one cow comprised the stock. We had brought a few pieces of common furniture from Georgia, and a very few necessary articles were bought. In the course of time some home-made contrivances and comforts relieved the desolate appearance of the rooms, but no attempt was ever made to refurnish the house.

He owned nothing that could be turned into money without great sacrifice but five bales of cotton. There were yet two sons and two daughters to be educated. He decided to get a tutor for them, and to receive several other pupils in his house in order to make up the salary. The household was put on an economical footing. The plantation negroes were hired to work in the fields, and things seemed to promise more prosperous days. So the first year was passed….

And now a great blow fell on Thomas Dabney. Shortly before the war he had been asked by a trusted friend to put his name as security on some papers for a good many thousand dollars. At the time he was assured that his name would only be wanted to tide over a crisis of two weeks, and that he would never hear of the papers again. It was a trap set, and his unsuspicious nature saw no danger, and he put his name to the papers. Loving this man, and confiding in his honor as in a son’s, he thought no more of the transaction.

It was now the autumn of 1866. One night he walked up-stairs to the room where his children were sitting, with a paper in his hand. “My children,” he said, “I am a ruined man. The sheriff is down-stairs. He has served this writ on me. It is for a security debt. I do not even know how many more such papers have my name to them.” His face was white as he said these words. He was sixty-eight years of age, with a large and helpless family on his hands, and the country in such a condition that young men scarcely knew how to make a livelihood.

The sheriff came with more writs. Thomas roused himself to meet them all. He determined to pay every dollar.

But to do this he must have time. The sale of everything that he owned would not pay all these claims. He put the business in the hands of his lawyer, Mr. John Shelton, of Raymond, who was also his intimate friend. Mr. Shelton contested the claims, and this delayed things till Thomas could decide on some way of paying the debts.

A gentleman to whom he owed personally several thousand dollars courteously forbore to send in his claim. Thomas was determined that he should not on this account fail to get his money, and wrote urging him to bring a friendly suit, that, if the worst came, he should at least get his proportion. Thus urged, the friendly suit was brought, the man deprecating the proceeding, as looking like pressing a gentleman.

And now the judgments, as he knew they would, went against him one by one. On the 27th of November, 1866, the Burleigh plantation was put up at auction and sold, but the privilege of buying it in a certain time reserved to Thomas. At this time incendiary fires were common. There was not much law in the land. We heard of the gin-houses and cotton-houses that were burned in all directions. One day as Thomas came back from a business journey the smouldering ruins of his gin-house met his eye. The building was itself valuable and necessary. All the cotton that he owned was consumed in it. He had not a dollar. He had to borrow the money to buy a postage stamp, not only during this year, but during many years to come. It was a time of deepest gloom. Thomas had been wounded to the bottom of his affectionate heart by the perfidy of the man who had brought this on his house. In the midst of the grinding poverty that now fell in full force on him, he heard of the reckless extravagance of this man on the money that should have been used to meet these debts.

Many honorable men in the South were taking the benefit of the bankrupt law. Thomas’s relations and friends urged him to take the law. It was madness, they said, for a man of his age, in the condition the country was then in, to talk of settling the immense debts that were against him. He refused with scorn to listen to such proposals. But his heart was wellnigh broken.

He called his children around him, as he lay in bed, not eating and scarcely sleeping.

“My children,” he said, “I shall have nothing to leave you but a fair name. But you may depend that I shall leave you that. I shall, if I live, pay every dollar that I owe. If I die, I leave these debts to you to discharge. Do not let my name be dishonored. Some men would kill themselves for this. I shall not do that. But I shall die.”

The grief of betrayed trust was the bitterest drop in his cup of suffering. But he soon roused himself from this depression and set about arranging to raise the money needed to buy in the plantation. It could only be done by giving up all the money brought in by the cotton crop for many years. This meant rigid self-denial for himself and his children. He could not bear the thought of seeing his daughters deprived of comforts. He was ready to stand unflinchingly any fate that might be in store for him. But his tenderest feelings were stirred for them. His chivalrous nature had always revolted from the sight of a woman doing hard work. He determined to spare his daughters all such labor as he could perform. General Sherman had said that he would like to bring every Southern woman to the wash-tub. “He shall never bring my daughters to the wash-tub,” Thomas Dabney said. “I will do the washing myself.” And he did it for two years. He was in his seventieth year when he began to do it.

This may give some idea of the labors, the privations, the hardships, of those terrible years. The most intimate friends of Thomas, nay, his own children, who were not in the daily life at Burleigh, have never known the unprecedented self-denial, carried to the extent of acutest bodily sufferings, which he practised during this time. A curtain must be drawn over this part of the life of my lion-hearted father!

When he grew white and thin, and his frightened daughters prepared a special dish for him, he refused to eat the delicacy. It would choke him, he said, to eat better food than they had, and he yielded only to their earnest solicitations. He would have died rather than ask for it. When the living was so coarse and so ill-prepared that he could scarcely eat it, he never failed, on rising from the table, to say earnestly and reverently, as he stood by his chair, “Thank the Lord for this much.”

During a period of eighteen months, no light in summer, and none but a fire in winter, except in some case of necessity, was seen in the house. He was fourteen years in paying these debts that fell on him in his sixty-ninth year. He lived but three years after the last dollar was paid.

When he was seventy years of age he determined to learn to cultivate a garden. He had never performed manual labor, but he now applied himself to learn to hoe as a means of supplying his family with vegetables. With the labor of those aged hands he made a garden that was the best ordered that we had ever seen at Burleigh. He made his garden, as he did everything that he undertook, in the most painstaking manner, neglecting nothing that could insure success. The beds and rows and walks in that garden were models of exactness and neatness. It was a quarter of a mile from the house and from water, on the top of a long, high hill, and three-quarters of an acre in extent. In a time of drought, or if he had set out anything that needed watering, he toiled up that long, precipitous hill with bucket after bucket of water. “I never look at the clouds” had been a saying of his in cultivating his plantation, and he carried it out now. That garden supplied the daily food of his family nearly all the year round. He planted vegetables in such quantities that it was impossible to consume all on the table, and he sold barrels of vegetables of different kinds in New Orleans.

Oftentimes he was so exhausted when he came in to dinner that he could not eat for a while. He had his old bright way of making every one take an interest in his pursuits,—sympathy was as necessary and sweet to him as to a child,—and he showed with pride what he had done by his personal labor in gardening and in washing. He placed the clothes on the line as carefully as if they were meant to hang there always, and they must be admired, too! He said, and truly, that he had never seen snowier ones.

Oh, thou heroic old man! Thou hast a right to thy pride in those exact strokes of the hoe and in those superb potatoes, “the best ever seen in the New Orleans market,” and in those long lines of snowy drapery! But those to whom thou art showing these things are looking beyond them, at the man! They are gazing reverently, and with scarce suppressed tears, on the hands that have been in this world for three-score and ten years, and are beginning to-day to support a houseful of children!

At the end of the hard day’s work he would say, sometimes: “General Sherman has not brought my daughters to the wash-tub. I could not stand that.”

General Sherman’s words were as a cruel spur in the side of a noble steed that needed no spur, and was already running beyond his strength.

He urged some of his old friends to follow his example, and was quite disgusted at the answer of one, that he had no “turn” for working in a garden. “No turn!” he repeated, indignantly, in speaking of it to his children. “I hear that he allows the ladies to do all this work. I wonder what turn for it they have! I have no toleration for such big Indian talk.”

His hands were much bent with age and gout. No glove could be drawn over them. They had been so soft that a bridle-rein, unless he had his gloves on, chafed them unpleasantly. He expressed thankfulness that the bent fingers and palms did not interfere with his holding either his hoe-handle or his pen. He wrote as many letters as ever, and an article for a State newspaper or a Virginia or New Orleans paper occasionally, if interested in anything that was going on. But he said that politics were getting to the state that only disgusted him, and he took no active part or interest even in State government till he saw a hope of throwing off “carpet-bag” rule. When he spoke of the expense of the postage on his correspondence, he said that he could not maintain himself in his station if he wrote fewer letters.

He tried hard to learn to plough, but he could not do it. It was a real disappointment. He tried to learn to cut wood, but complained that he could not strike twice in the same spot. It was with great labor that he got a stick cut in two. His failure in this filled him with a dogged determination to succeed, and he persisted in cutting wood in the most painful manner, often till he was exhausted. Some one told him of a hand-saw for sawing wood, and he was delighted and felt independent when he got one. He enjoyed it like a new toy, it was so much better in his hands than the axe. He sawed wood by the hour, in the cold and in the heat. It seemed to be his rule never to stop any work till he was exhausted.

His son Edward lived with him during these years. He tried to lessen his father’s labors. But Thomas Dabney was not a man to sit down while his children worked. Besides, there was work enough for these two men, and more than enough. The arrangement of both house and plantation had been planned to employ many servants, as was the custom in the South. Everything was at a long distance from everything else. As time went on, an effort was made to concentrate things. But, without money, it was impossible to arrange the place like a Northern farm, with every convenience near at hand.

One fall, in putting down the dining-room carpet, Thomas heard his daughter say that she meant to turn the carpet, because it looked new on the other side.

“Do not turn it, then,” he said. “I do not wish any one to suppose that I would buy a new carpet, owing money as I do.”

In these years he was preparing once for a business visit to New Orleans. His daughter asked him to buy a new suit, as he spoke of calling on his friends in the city.

“No,” he answered; “I should be ashamed to wear new clothes. What hope would my creditors have of ever getting their money if they saw me in New Orleans in new clothes? No; I am going in this suit that you say looks so shabby and faded. I shall call on all my creditors in this suit. I have not a dollar to take to them, but I shall let them see that I am not shunning them for that. I shall show myself to them, and tell them that I am doing my very best to pay them, and that they shall have every dollar if they will have patience. You see, my child, this is the only assurance I can give them that I mean to pay them. Now, could I expect to be believed if I were handsomely dressed?”

His merchants, Giquel & Jamison, were among the creditors whom he saw during this visit. They informed him that all their books had been burned during the war, and that they had no bill against him. They said also that they had accounts amounting to one hundred and fifty thousand dollars set down in those books, and that he was the only man who had come forward to pay them. He was not to be turned from paying his debt.

An humble neighbor had said years ago that he hated Colonel Dabney because he acted as if he considered himself a prince. In these later days he admired Thomas as much as he had before disliked him. “I thought him a haughty man because he was rich; now I see that he is the same man poor that he was rich. Now I know that he is a prince.”

One of his daughters had occasion to offer a draft of his to an ignorant man in a distant county of Mississippi. She felt a natural diffidence, as she was not sure that it would be accepted in payment of her indebtedness. She asked the man if he had ever heard of Thomas Dabney.

“Heard of him?” he said. “Every letter in his name is pure gold. I would as soon have that draft as the gold in my hand.”

Seeing one of his daughters look sad and quiet, Thomas said to her: “My child, it seems to me that you look coldly on me. I cannot bear that. You are the very core of my heart. If I have done anything that you do not like, tell me.”

Oh, what heart would not bound out to the father who could say that to his own child!

And the tender, satisfied look when he was embraced and kissed, and the real trouble confided to his sympathizing bosom!