The End of an Era
Wise, John S.
Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1899

[From] Chapter VI

  Many other things were happening which drew my attention to the subject of slavery. During our next visit to Philadelphia, everybody was talking about a book and a play called "Uncle Tom's Cabin." I had heard mention of the book at home, as a very powerful but very "pernicious" book. More than once the subject had come up in conversation in my presence; and I had heard the work spoken of as a cruel travesty upon Southern life, disgusting in its sentimental sympathy with the negro. I was surprised to find that everybody in the North was reading "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and pronouncing it a remarkable production; and when it was proposed, on our next visit to Philadelphia, to take me to a theatre to see this wonderful play of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," I was delighted. Never did theatrical performance open to any one more gratifyingly than that wonderful drama. In my heart I had a feeling that our Northern kinsfolk thought their homes were finer than those in our beloved South. I did not think so. When, in the opening act, I saw the beautiful Southern home, with its flowers and bowers and sunshine, I said to myself, "Now they will see how we live, and will envy us." Yes, old Uncle Tom and all his family were just such darkeys as were in Virginia. And as for Eva, there she was, looking like a hundred little girls I knew, and infinitely sweeter in voice and eye than the prim Northern girls surrounding me. And Eva's father! I knew a hundred charming young fellows just like him. Her mother? Well, there was no denying it that now and then we saw one like her, but she was not a common or attractive type. And Topsy? Yes, there were darkeys just like


her, even within my limited knowledge. I laughed and enjoyed myself along with the others over Topsy's queer antics.

  The play moved on. In time the slave auction came, and the negro-buyers, and the terrible domestic tragedy to Uncle Tom, and the fearful Mississippi River trip, and the whipping of Eliza's husband,—her flight, the blood­hounds, and all the ghastly story which thrilled a nation. I was too young to grasp the moral of that story, yet old enough to feel my heart rebel against things which I had never before seen laid at the door of the people I loved and among whom I lived. I believed that many of them were the mere creations of a malignant enemy, who had conjured them up out of her own imagination to prejudice the outside world against my kith and kin, and I indignantly denied, when questioned concerning the play, that such scenes were possible. I had never witnessed them, or heard of them, in the home of my father. I resolved to denounce and forget this new phase of slavery which that night had revealed to me, and the anger and the pity which I heard expressed by the people about me confirmed me in the belief that they were sentimentalists on subjects of which they were ignorant, and that the denunciation of slavery by Northerners sprang from prejudices engendered by just such outrageous exaggerations as those of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

  But the play made a deep and lasting impression upon me. The sweet vision of little Eva, the inexpressible pathos of Uncle Tom, the freaks of Topsy, came back to me time and time again. Alas! they returned yoked in my memory with the wretched figure of Legree, the blood­hounds, and the misery of the other scenes, and the possibility that it all might be true revealed itself to me in a way that I little expected. I knew there was such a thing


as a negro-buyer. On one or two occasions I had had such men pointed out to me. I had been taught to regard them as an inferior class of humanity; but this knowledge came principally from the negroes themselves, for the grown people of my own class seldom referred to them, and they received no sort of social recognition. I had, in fact, seen in the newspapers advertisements of the sale of negroes, side by side with little figures of a man with a pack on his back, and the offer of a reward for a runaway. But never until my return from the North was my curiosity sufficiently aroused to make me locate the place of selling negroes, or determine me to see a sale.

  Among my Northern kinsfolk was a young uncle, a handsome, witty fellow, much younger than my mother. Notwithstanding her death, he had kept up his affection and intimacy with father. Influenced partly by his regard for father and partly by pride as a Pennsylvanian, he had become an ardent supporter of Mr. Buchanan. He occupied a rather prominent position as a Democratic member of the Pennsylvania legislature. Controlled doubtless by his warm attachments in the South, he had no squeamish feelings about slavery. He loved the Union, and sincerely believed that the only way to preserve it was by recognizing the existence of slavery, and by protecting the slave­holders in all lawful ways. He believed also that men like his brother-in-law were convinced that slavery ought to be abolished; and that the best way to bring that result about, without disunion and conflict, was to trust to its gradual accomplishment by the slave States themselves, acting under the influence of men such as he knew, instead of attempting to coerce them by outside influence, which, as he believed, would arouse their antagonism and defiance, so as to defeat or delay the end desired. This was the honest feeling which made many a Northern man a


Democrat in those days. It may have been an error in judgment, but it was an error, if error at all, on the side of Union and fraternity, springing from a knowledge of their Southern brethren, a respect and regard for them, and a desire for the peaceful solution of a most perplexing problem. Let no man at this day denounce that feeling as cowardice or lack of principle. The man of whom I write felt that way and acted that way to the last. But when the "irrepressible conflict" came, he laid down his life with a smile for the Union, while many a man who had precipitated the struggle never went to the front. And he was but one of thousands.

  It was he who had taken me to see "Uncle Tom's Cabin;" and it was he who had petted me, and taken me about the streets of Philadelphia, and spoiled me in many ways; and it was he who had taken me to visit the President; and now he had come to visit us, and spend a week of leisure with his favorite brother-in-law.

  My oldest brother had recently returned from Paris. He had been absent as Secretary of Legation in Berlin and Paris for nearly six years. He and my uncle were nearly of the same age, and devoted friends. Father loved this oldest son as the apple of his eye, and the feeling of that son for his father was little short of adoration. The relations between these three—father, son, and brother-in-law—were of the most intimate and beautiful kind. Together they conferred, as if they were men of the same age, and, being in full accord on public questions, their views were always harmonious, whether looking to some social pleasure, or some cooperation for the advancement of their political plans. Father had higher ambitions than he had yet realized. He was becoming prominent as a possible candidate for the presidency. Both from a natural inclination and a desire to promote his candidacy, my


brother had become editor of the "Richmond Enquirer," the leading Democratic journal of Virginia; my uncle was heart and soul enlisted in securing support for father among his own constituency. It was believed that his well-known conservatism on the subject of slavery, and his intense devotion to the Union, would make his prospects very good for the nomination.

  I had unrestrained access to the library, where this trio frequently assembled; and, without being admitted into their graver conversation, heard it, and understood its general tenor. The occupations of my father and brother left their visitor to find his own amusements until the evening hour, and he diverted himself at such times by reading or sight-seeing, or in diversions with the children, of whom he was very fond.

  One Saturday, thus left alone with me, the subject of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" came up. He asked if I had ever seen a slave sale. "No," said I, all alert, for since I saw the play I had resolved that I would some time see a slave auction; "but I know where they sell them. I saw the sign a few days ago. Let us go and see what it is like." So off we started. Out of the beautiful grounds and past the handsome residences we went, turning down Franklin Street towards the great Exchange Hotel, which was at that time the principal public place of Richmond. Beyond it we passed a church, still used as such, although the locality had been deserted by residences, and stables and little shops surrounded it. As we proceeded, the street became more and more squalid and repulsive, until at last we reached a low brick warehouse, with its end abutting on the street and running far back. Over the place was the sign, with the name of an owner and the words "Auction House" conspicuously painted. At the door hung a red flag, with an advertisement pasted on


its side, and up and down the street a mulatto man walked with another flag, ringing a large bell, and shouting, "Oh, yea! Oh, yea! Oh, yea! Walk up, gentlemen. The sale of a fine, likely lot of young niggers is now about to begin." To these he added, in tones which were really merry, and with an expansive smile, that they were "all sorts of niggers, belonging to the estate of the late ——, sold for no fault, but to settle the estate;" and that the lot embraced all kinds, "old ones and young ones, men and women, gals and boys."

  About the door, and on the inside, a few men were grouped, some in their shirt-sleeves. For the most part, they had the appearance of hostlers. The place itself looked like a livery stable within the building. For a long distance back from the street, there were no side­lights or skylights. In the rear only was it light, where the structure projected beyond those on either side of it, and there the light was ample, and the business in hand was to be transacted.

  We moved cautiously through the dark front of the building, and came at last to the rear, where a small platform occupied the centre of the room, and chairs and benches were distributed about the walls. Another large mulatto man appeared to act as usher, standing near a door, through which from time to time he furnished a fresh supply of slaves for sale. A large man, with full beard, not a bad-looking fellow but for the "ratty" appearance of his quick, cold, small black eyes, acted as auctioneer. A few negroes sat on the bench by the door, they being the first "lot" to be disposed of. The purchasers stood or sat about, smoking or chewing tobacco, while the auctioneer proceeded to read the decree of a chancery court in the settlement of a decedent's estate, under which this sale was made. The lawyers represent-


ing different interests were there, as were also the creditors and distributees having interests in the sale. Besides these were ordinary buyers in need of servants, and slave­traders who made a living by buying cheap and selling for a profit. We took seats, and watched and listened intently.

  After reading the formal announcement authorizing the sale, the auctioneer became eloquent. He proceeded to explain to his auditors that this was "no ordinary sale of a damaged, no-'count lot of niggers, whar a man buyin' a nigger mout or mout not git what he was lookin' fur, but one of those rar' opperchunities, which cum only once or twice in a lifetime, when the buyer is sho' that fur every dollar he pays he's gittin' a full dollar's wuth of raal genuine nigger, healthy, well-raised, well-mannered, respectful, obejunt, and willin'." "Why," said he, "gentlemen, you kin look over this whole gang of niggers, from the oldest to the youngest, an' you won't find the mark of a whip on one of 'em. Colonel ——, for whose estate they is sold, was known to be one of the kindest marsters, and at the same time one of the best bringers-up of niggers, in all Virginia. These here po' devils is sold for no fault whatever, but simply and only because, owin' to the Curnel's sudden death, his estate is left embarrassed, and it is necessary to sell his niggers to pay his debts, and for distributin' some reddy monny amongst numrus 'aars. Of these facts I assure you upon the honor of a gentleman."

  Having thus paved the way for good prices, he announced that among the slaves to be offered were good carriage-drivers, gardeners, dining-room servants, farm hands, cooks, milkers, seamstresses, washerwomen, and "the most promisin', growin', sleek, and sassy lot of young niggers he had ever had the pleasure of offerin'."


  The sale was begun with some "bucks," as he facetiously called them. They were young, unmarried fellows from eighteen to twenty-five. Ordered to mount the auction-block, they stripped to the waist and bounced up, rather amused than otherwise, grinning at the lively bidding they excited. Cautious bidders drew near to them, examined their eyes, spoke with them to test their hearing and manners, made them open their mouths and show their teeth, ran their hands over the muscles of their backs and arms, caused them to draw up their trousers to display their legs, and, after fully satisfying themselves on these and other points, bid for them what they saw fit. Whenever a sale was concluded, the successful bidder was announced, and the announcement was greeted by the darkeys themselves with broad grins, and such expressions as "Thank Gord," or "Bless de Lord," if it went as they wished, or in uncomplaining silence if otherwise. It was surprising to see how thoroughly they all seemed to be informed concerning the men who were bidding for them.

  The scenes accompanying the sales of young women were very similar to those with the young men, except that what was said to them and about them was astonishingly plain and shocking. One was recommended as a "rattlin' good breeder," because she had already given birth to two children at seventeen years of age. Another, a mulatto of very comely form, showed deep embarrassment when questioned about her condition.

  They brought good prices. "Niggers is high" was the general comment. Who bought them, where they went, whether they were separated from father, mother, brother, or sister, God knows. Let us hope the result was as humane as possible.

  "I am now goin' to offer you a very likely young chile-


barin' woman," said the auctioneer. "She is puffectly helthy, and without a blemish. Among the family, she is a universal favorite. I offer her with the privilidge of takin' her husban' and two chillen with her at a very rejuced price, because it is the wish of all concerned to keep 'em together, if possible. Get up here, Martha Ann." A large-framed, warm, comfortable-looking, motherly soul, with a fine, honest face, mounted the block. "Now, gentlemen," said he, continuing, "ef you'll cast yo' eyes into that corner, you will see Israel, Martha Ann's husband, and Cephas and Melindy, her two children. Israel is not what you may call a raal able-bodied man. He broke his leg some years ago handlin' one of the Curnel's colts, and he ain't able to do heavy work; but I am asshoed by everybody on the place that Israel is a most valuable servant about a house for all kind of light work, and he can be had mighty cheap."

  "Yes, sir," spoke up Israel eagerly, "I kin do as much ez ennybody ; and, marsters, ef you'll only buy me and de chillun with Martha Ann, Gord knows I'll wuk myself to deth fur you."

  The poor little darkeys, Cephas and Melinda, sat there frightened and silent, their white eyes dancing like monkey-eyes, and gleaming in the shadows. As her husband's voice broke on her ear, Martha Ann, who had been looking sadly out of the window in a pose of quiet dignity, turned her face with an expression of exquisite love and gratitude towards Israel. She gazed for a moment at her husband and at her children, and then looked away once more, her eyes brimming with tears.

  "How much am I offered for Martha Ann with the privilidge?" shouted the auctioneer. The bidding began. It was very sluggish. The hammer fell at last. The price was low. Perhaps, even in that crowd, nobody wanted


them all, and few were willing to do the heartless act of taking her alone. So she sold low. When the name of her purchaser was announced, I knew him. He was an odd, wizen, cheerless old fellow, who was a member of the Virginia legislature from one of the far-away south­side counties adjoining North Carolina. Heaven be praised, he was not a supporter of father, but called himself an Old-line Whig, and ranked with the opposition. He seemed to have no associates among the members, and nobody knew where he lived in the city. He was notoriously penurious, and drew his pay as regularly as the week rolled around.

  "Mr. —— buys Martha Ann," said the auctioneer. "I congratulate you, Mr. ——. You've bought the cheapes' nigger sold here to-day. Will you take Israel and the young uns with her?"

  Deep silence fell upon the gathering. Even imperturbable Martha Ann showed her anxiety by the heaving of her bosom. Israel strained forward, where he sat, to hear the first word of hope or of despair. The old man who had bid for her shuffled forward, fumbling in his pockets for his money, delaying his reply so long that the question was repeated. "No—o," drawled he at last; "no—o, I'm sorry for 'em, but I railly can't. You see, I live a long way from here, and I ride down to the legislatur', and, when I get here, I sell my horse and live cheap, and aims to save up enough from my salary to buy another horse and a 'chile-barin' woman' when the session's done; and then I takes her home, ridin' behind me on the horse. Thar ain't no way I could provide for gittin' the man and the young uns home, even if they was given to me. I think I'm doin' pretty well to save enough in a session to buy one nigger, much less a whole fambly." And the old beast looked up over his spectacles as


he counted his money, and actually chuckled, as if he expected a round of applause for his clever business ability.

  A deep groan, unaccompanied by any word of complaint, came from the dark corner where Israel sat. Martha Ann stepped down from the platform, walked to where he was, the tears streaming down her cheeks, and there, hugging her children and rocking herself back and forth, she sobbed as if her heart was breaking.

  My companion and I looked at each other in disgust, but neither spoke a word. I was ready to burst into tears. The old creature who had bought the woman lugged out his hoarded money in sundry packages of coin and paper, and, as he counted it, said, "Martha Ann, cheer up; you'll find me a good marster, and I'll get you a new husband." He might well have added, "and the more children you have, the better I'll like you."

  Thank God, the scene did not end there. The silence was oppressive. The veriest savage on earth could not have witnessed it without being moved. "Let us go away," I whispered. At last the suspense was broken. A handsome, manly fellow, one of the lawyers in the case, exclaimed, "By ——! I can't stand this. I knew Colonel well. I know how he felt towards Israel and Martha Ann and their children. This is enough to make him turn in his grave. I am unable to make this purchase; but sooner than see them separated, I'll bank­rupt myself. Mr. ——, I will take Martha Ann off your hands, so as to buy her husband and children, and keep them together."

  "Well, now, you see," drawled the old fellow, pausing in his work, with trembling hand, "if you feel that way, the time to speak was when the gal was up for sale." His eye glittered with the thought of turning the situation to advantage. "You see she 's mine now, and I consider


her a very desirable and very cheap purchase. Moreover, if you want her, I think you ought to be willin' to pay me something for the time and trouble I've wasted here a-tryin' to git her."

  The proposition was sickening. But the old creature was so small himself that his demand of profit was likewise small, and the matter was soon arranged. Whether he remained and bought another "chile-barin'" woman is unknown; for, sick at heart at the sights we had witnessed, we withdrew, and walked slowly back in the glorious sunlight, past the neighboring church, and up to the happy abodes of Virginia's best civilization, little inclined to talk of the nightmare we had been through. From that hour, the views of both of us concerning slavery were materially modified. Throughout the day, the horrors we had witnessed came back and back again to me; and, recuperative as I was, I was very, very unhappy.

  That night, the experiences of the morning were the subject of a long and anxious and earnest conversation between father, my brother, and my uncle. At its close, I felt much relieved and proud of them, and better satisfied, because they were all agreed that a system in which things like that were possible was monstrous; and that the question was, not whether it should be abolished, and abolished quickly, but as to the manner of its abolition.

  Within seven years from that time, my brother and my uncle were both dead,—killed in battle on opposite sides, in a struggle resulting from slavery. Father's fortune and happiness were engulfed in the horrible fraternal strife which grew out of this cancer on the body politic,—a cancer which all three of those men were honestly anxious to destroy.

  Virginians! you who in our day were led by Lee and Jackson! have you read this chapter? Is it true or un-


true? Ask yourselves calmly. The time has now come when you ought, in justice to yourselves, to try to satisfy yourselves wherein your old system was wrong and unjustifiable, as well as wherein it was right. One who loves you wrote this story; one who was your comrade in the fight we lost; one who has no word of blame for you, but, on the contrary, believes that we had every provocation to fight; one who, as long as he lives, will glory in the way we fought, and is proud of his own scars, and teaches his children to believe that the record of Confederate valor is a priceless heritage.

  It is not written when the truth can do you harm. It is not written by an alien in feeling, or an enthusiast for an abstract idea. It is written to make you think,—to make you ask yourselves whether you can, before God, claim that all was as it should be when we had slavery. It is written to reconcile you to your loss by showing you from what your children were delivered.

  It is penned in the firm belief that some day, while brooding upon the happiness, the wealth, the culture, the refinement then possessed by the South, and to so large an extent lost to her now, you may realize that all these, delightful as they were, did not justify the curse and misery of human slavery. I seek to make you realize, if not admit, that its abolition was a greater blessing to us even than to the slaves, and that emancipation was worth all we surrendered, and all the precious lives that were destroyed; to bring you to confess, the brave and generous men I know you to be, that the time has come at last when, through our tears, and without disloyalty to the dead, in the possession of freedom and union and liberty, true Confederates, viewing it all in the clearer light and calmer atmosphere of to-day, ought to thank God that slavery died at Appomattox.