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Ambrose Ranson Remembers Jefferson County in the 1840s & 1850s Part 3
youtu.be/bXKjMyKYkwU TRT: 7:19
This is taken from one of six essays written for Sewanee Review from 1913 to 1915 by Ambrose Robert Hite Ranson (1831-1919) about his growing up years living at his family home, Gap View, and his experiences during the Civil War as a Confederate officer. His observations are very informative about daily life pre-war amid unacceptable observations condoning the enslavement of other human beings. His account is still important in its rendering of daily work on a farm in the 1840s and 1850s in Jefferson County, Virginia, one of the most agricultural counties in the Virginias. These conditions were substantially different in the northern Shenandoah Valley when compared to the brutal monocultures in the deep South. Enslavement in Jefferson County, based on writings of those – white and black – who lived here then – was one of diverse work, the pervasive fear of being sold south, pockets of profound cruelty, and the tantalizing nearness of the option of escaping to freedom.
REMINISCENCES OF THE CIVIL WAR BY A CONFEDERATE STAFF OFFICER
Plantation Life in Virginia Before the War Part 3
“Reminiscences of a Civil War Staff Officer By A Confederate Staff Officer, First Paper: Plantation Life in Virginia Before the War.”
The Sewanee Review. Vol. 21, No. (4 Oct. 1913), PP. 428-447.
Plantation Life in Virginia Before the War by Ambrose Ranson Part 3
After the harvest was ended each hand was paid one day’s wages in gold and silver; the leading cradler got .00, the other cradlers .50, and the others the usual wages, down to the little boy who carried the sheaves. If the neighbors had not finished their harvest, the force was allowed to go and help them out, receiving for themselves the usual wages.
5. split bottom chairs
In all the fields of corn the outside rows were planted in broom-corn for the negroes’ use, and they spent the long winter evenings in making brooms, baskets, hampers, and split bottom chairs, all of which found a ready sale in the country stores. The chairs were of all sizes, from the large porch chairs down to low sewing chairs and chairs for children.
They managed to make them very comfortable, and they were substantial and lasted a lifetime.
There was often on the farm an old rheumatic negro who had learned to make shoes, and he made boots to the knee and nailed in the soles for all the men, and shoes for all the women and children, the master paying him for his work a moderate sum. Each man on the place was allotted a piece of ground which he planted in anything he liked, generally in melons,
and the negroes’ watermelons were always the best the farm produced. The thrifty negro was never without money in his pocket, and some have even been known to have money enough to buy their own freedom, or that of a wife or child who was in danger of being sold for the debts of their owner.
In hot weather a ration of whisky steeped in tansy, and in malarial seasons a gill of whisky with five grains of quinine was issued to each man every morning before he went to his work. It is all over now, and I for one am glad of it; but the fact remains that the slave did his work, and was moderately comfortable and happy, and the master took care of him. (at least on our plantation).
In those days the kitchen was generally detached or only connected with the house by a covered way.
The meals were brought in by detachments and put down in front of the fire, inside the brass fender. When all was ready, the meal was announced, the family took their seats, and the viands were served hot from the fire. There was also a plate warmer which stood on the hearth in front of the dining-room fire. The advantage of these arrangements was twofold, — you got a hot meal on a hot plate and you knew what your dinner was to be without a menu card.
One evening my father (who had come in after a cold day on horseback) was sitting in front of the dining-room fire waiting for his supper, when Tom, the waiter, came in and put down on the hearth two plates of beaten biscuits. In leaning over to do this, several tell-tale biscuits dropped from the unbuttoned breast of his coat. Tom stood still, utterly dumfounded, but my father said promptly, "Tom, Tom, you old rascal, you are simply raining biscuits this evening. Pick ’em up, Tom, pick ’em up and put ’em in your pocket. It won’t do to waste good biscuits, Tom",
— and poor Tom picked up the biscuits and put them in his pocket. I remember well my mother’s attitude towards our slaves. She had a school where all the young ones were
taught (contrary to law). She taught them herself, and her Sunday school was always full. All our young slaves could read and some of them could write.
My old Mammy always wrote to my mother when she was away from home. When we (the children) gathered around the table to study our lessons at night, she always took her place at the table with pen, ink, and paper. "Now, children," she would say, "I am going to write to your ma, and I don’t want to give a bad account of any of you." I can remember the times I
laid my weary head in Mammy’s lap and said my sleepy prayers, and I remember her sitting nodding by my bedside until I should fall asleep.
And I remember Mammy’s funeral, for I was almost a man then. We were living in Charlestown, and Mammy was old and lived
in a cabin at the bottom of the garden walk and never came to the house. On good days she sat in her door in the sun with her Bible on her knees. My mother was old and feeble, but on good days she would walk down to the cabin, while in bad weather they would wave their hands at each other.
When Mammy died, my father determined to bury her in the Episcopal graveyard at Zion Church. Although a vestryman, he could not get permission, but the procession moved up the back street, about half a mile in the August sun, the coffin, carried by eight strong men, my father with his hat off, walking immediately behind it.
When we came to the gates they were locked, but after a little delay they were opened somehow, and Mammy, the only negro, lies buried in Zion churchyard with the white folks.
Ranson, A. R. H. “Reminiscences of a Civil War Staff Officer By A Confederate Staff Officer, First Paper: Plantation Life in Virginia Before the War.” The Sewanee Review. Vol. 21, No. (4 Oct. 1913), pp. 428-447.
Ranson, A. R. H. “Reminiscences of a Civil War Staff Officer By A Confederate Staff Officer, First Paper: Plantation Life in Virginia Before the War.” The Sewanee Review. Internet Archives. archive.org 26 January 1997 Web. 20 January 2014.