Life on a plantation: Interview with N.B. de Saussure

An authentic interview between the Civil War Gazette and Mrs. De Sausssure (1837-1915).Nancy Bostick (1837-1915) was one of twelve children born to a prominent plantation owner in Hampton County, South Carolina. She was educated at home by private tutors and took music lessons in Charleston, where she met Henry William De Saussure. They married in 1859 and settled in Robertville, South Carolina, a central location from which Dr. De Saussure found it easier to visit patients.

During the Civil War, Dr. De Saussure served the Confederacy as a surgeon, first with the Charleston Light Dragoons, and later along the South Carolina coast. While her husband was away, Nancy and her young daughter lived at Nancy’s father’s plantation, which was close enough to her husband’s camp to enable her to visit him relatively frequently. When General Sherman’s army swept through South Carolina, Nancy fled their home, which was destroyed by fire. After the Civil War, Nancy Saussure taught at Vassar College.

Nancy Bostick De Saussure wrote Old Plantation Days: Being Recollections of the Days Before the Civil War (1909) in the form of a letter to her granddaughter, Dorothy.

What you are about to read is an “authentic” interview between The Civil War Gazette and Mrs. De Saussure. The answers Mrs. De Saussure [pronounced DES-suh-sore] provides are historically-accurate, taken from her journal, diaries or letters. The questions are contemporary, but chosen and phrased in a manner as if Mrs. De Saussure were interviewed by a 21st century reporter.

No attempt has been made to contemporize the language of Mrs. De Sausssure. For example, she often used the term ‘negroes’. Though certain terms, idioms and phrases are no longer used, or perhaps acceptable today, we feel it is important to hear Mrs. De Saussure in her context, which includes her original language.

This is a fascinating interview. In it, you will learn things like:

  • What life was like for slaves on a real plantation during the Civil War?
  • How were slaves cared for medically?
  • Was there a master-slave attachment?
  • Were de Saussure’s slaves treated well?
  • What was it like to personally observe the firing upon Ft. Sumter?
  • How did Charlestonians feel about the war?
  • What kind of destruction and ruin did Charlestonians experience?
  • And many more interesting questions answered by a personal witness who was just 24 years old in 1861.

Imagine a reporter from The Civil War Gazette sitting down with Mrs. De Saussure in 1909, on a large shaded porch, in Charleston of course; sipping ice tea . . . . asking questions we’d all love the answers to.

In 1861 the De Saussure’s lived in Robertville, SC; a little northwest of Beaufort.

This interview will cover these topics:

  • The Old South vs The New South
  • The de Saussure Family
  • The Slaves and the Plantation
    • The Master/Slave Attachment
    • Health and Medical Care
    • Typical Day/Life on the Plantation
    • Education for the de Saussure Children
    • The Social-life Around the Plantation Community
  • Life and Times in Charleston during the Civil War (1861-1865)
    • Early in the War
    • The Firing on Sumter, April 1861
    • Post-Sumter Days
    • The Capture of Port Royal, November 1861
    • Late-War Reminscences, Charleston-area
    • The Effect of War: Ruin and Destruction
    • Sherman’s march through the Carolinas
    • The War Comes to an End

The Old South versus The New South

GDV: Mrs. De Saussure [pronounced DES-suh-sore], how do you see the South now, forty years since the Civil War?

NBD: The South as I knew it has disappeared; the New South has risen from its ashes, filled with the energetic spirit of a new age.

GVD: So those days were . . . ?

NBD: . . . the happy plantation days, the recollection of which causes my heart to throb again with youthful pleasure, and near them are the days, the dreadful days, of war and fire and famine.

The de Saussure Family

GVD: We’ve heard your great-grandmother was a special woman. Tell us about her.

NBD: My great-grandmother’s eldest son, at nineteen, was a captain in the Revolutionary War, and she was left alone, a widow on her plantation. When the British made a raid on her home, carrying off everything, she remained undaunted, and, mounting a horse, rode in hot haste to where the army was stationed, and asked to see the general in command. Her persistence gained admittance. She stated her case and the condition in which the British soldiers had left her home, and pleaded her cause with so much eloquence that the general ordered the spoils returned to her. Dearest child, in the intrepid spirit of this ancestor you will find the keynote to the brave spirit of the women of the South.

GVD: And would you tell us about your mother? She ran a plantation, right?

NBD: Mother was a woman of remarkable sweetness of disposition and intelligence, and had great executive ability, which latter quality was dispensable in the mistress of a large household of children and servants. She gave unceasing care and attention to her children, and personally supervised every detail of their education. Besides these duties, the negroes of the plantation, their food and clothing, care of their infants and the sick, all came under her control.

GVD: Who was your grandfather (father’s side)?

NBD: Henry William De Saussure, who was a descendant of the Huguenot family of that name, and a grandson of Chancellor Henry William De Saussure.

GVD: Your father was a spiritual man, was he not?

NBD: His devotion to Christ was unusual, and I never knew him to doubt for an instant that he himself was a child of God. Having a most affectionate disposition, he loved his wife and children intensely, and lived in and for them.

Part Two: Interview with N.B. de Saussure

The Slaves and the Plantation

GVD: How did your parents come into owning slaves?

NBD: My father and mother inherited most of their negroes . . .

The Master-Slave Attachment

GVD: Can you speak to the “attachment” between slave and master that often occurred?

NBD: There was an attachment existing between master and mistress and their slaves which one who had never borne such a relation could never understand. In one of my rare visits South to my own people, the old-time darkies, our former slaves, walked twenty miles to see “Miss Nancy” and her little daughter, and the latter, your dear mother, would often be surprised, when taken impulsively in their big black arms, and hugged and kissed and cried over “for ol’ times’ sake.”

GVD: to be candid, wouldn’t your had preferred freedom?

NBD: When I would inquire into their welfare and present condition I heard but one refrain, “I’d never known what it was to suffer till freedom came, and we lost our master.” Yes, Dorothy dear, a lot of children unprepared to enjoy the Emancipation Proclamation were suddenly confronted with life’s problems.

GVD: Can you speak more to the attachment of the slave to the master, as you experienced?

NBD: In spite of many misrepresentations by those who can never comprehend the tender attachment existing in those days between master and slave, I want you to have a clear idea of it, and I want you to know that the Southerner understood, and understands to this day, the negro’s character better than the Northerner, and is in the main kinder to, and more forbearing with him. There were countless incidents during the war of love and loyalty shown by the negroes to their former owners, which you will read of in the many stories written now by those who know the truth.

GVD: you have a letter from a Reverend Lathrop who speaks to the master/slave attachment. Would you mind sharing some of it with us?

[A letter to N.B. from an Edward Lathrop…]

I was nursed by a negro woman to whom I was most fondly attached, and who, I believe, loved me as she would her own son. I have had the opportunity to mingle freely with slaveholders of different characters and dispositions, and while I regard slavery as such an enormous evil and am heartily glad that it has been abolished in this country, I am bound in candor to say that my observation, during all these years of my residence in Georgia and South Carolina, thoroughly convinced me that in the majority of cases slaves were more kindly treated and brought into more intimate and kindly relations to white families than they are now, though free. This, of course, is not given as an apology for slavery, but it is a simple statement of facts. I might refer, for example, to what I witnessed and felt, while a guest, on more than one occasion, in the house of your honored father and mother. Your father seemed to me to be as watchful of the interests, both temporal and spiritual, of his slaves as of his own immediate white family. It was, to my mind, a beautiful illustration of patriarchal slavery, as it existed in the days of Abraham. Of course there were exceptions to this treatment of slaves by their owners, but, as a rule, so far as my observation extended, your father’s methods were universally approved, while the cruel slaveholder was indignantly condemned and repudiated.

Beaufort District (now county) was probably the largest slaveholding district in the State. Most that I have stated above, as to the kindly treatment of slaves was emphatically true of Beaufort. The Baptist Church, in addition to its white membership, embraced about two thousand slaves. These slaves, as church members, enjoyed equal privileges with the whites. The Lord’s Supper was administered to them and to the whites impartially and at the same time.
– Edward Lathrop

Health and Medical Care on the Plantation

GVD: what did you do for medical care, with so many people on a plantation to attend to?

NBD: My mother had a magnificent constitution or she could never have accomplished the amount of work required of her. I never knew her to have until her latter years a physician for herself. But for family needs we had colored nurses who, under a physician, were competent and devoted in sickness.

It was a revelation to me of the tender care that old patriarch gave to his slaves, no wonder that they loved him. . . . . If a negro was sick, your father would always send him food from his own table, which was received with great pleasure.

Typical Day-Life on the Plantation

GVD: What kind of resources did your plantation provide?

NBD: We had a steam mill for sawing lumber, and mills for grinding corn and wheat. Sugar was made in quantities for negroes, but there was no way of refining it. Everything was bountiful and we lacked nothing, but coffee and tea. Every known and unknown substitute was used for these drinks, but none were satisfactory; otherwise we never lived with greater abundance. Our swamps yielded us all game bountifully, venison, wild turkeys, partridges, and reed birds. It was a rich country and could feed an army.

GVD: how did a typical day begin on your plantation?

NBD: The day was always begun with family prayers, for my father’s religious principles were his staff in life, and he derived much strength from them. Fortunately, the love he gave the slaves was fully returned, and I doubt if there was ever a more devoted and united family.

GVD: what did slaves typically do in the evenings after work?

NBD: . . . . they [slaves] gathered in groups about their bright fires, roasting corn and singing their quaint and wonderfully sweet plantation songs.

GVD: What normally took place after breakfast on the plantation?

NBD: .… after breakfast it was customary for the head nurse to report any cases of sickness on the plantation to my mother. Mother’s medicine chest was brought out and together they consulted about the condition of each patient. If anyone were very ill, a man was sent to call in a physician who lived several miles away. My mother then hastened to the negro quarters, and if the invalids could be removed they were brought to the sick house – a large, long building fitted with cots – where they could be better cared for.

I can remember going fearlessly in and out of the cabins, carrying dainty dishes to many little ones who were suffering with what they then called putrid sore throat. It was really diphtheria, and, strange to say, not one of our family took the disease, though there were forty cases on the plantation.

GVD: After attending the sick, what was next?

NBD: After attending the sick, mother’s next duty was to give out the daily provisions. She made a pretty picture in her quaint gown carrying a basket of keys on her arm. The Bible verse, “She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness,” could well have been written of her. With twenty-five house and garden servants and the many little children to be looked after, this daily provisioning took a great deal of time, and thought. The house servants had their own kitchen and cook.

GVD: What was a typical Sunday like?

NBD: On Sunday they attended the same churches as the family, the galleries being reserved for them. I might have added in telling of their prayer meeting, that when we were present they always prayed for “Ole Massa and Missus,” and the various members of the family, including the “young Missus from the North.” The little negro children would leave their play to gather around me as they saw me walking about the grounds. On Sundays your mother and her daughters used to go around to the negroes’ houses to read the Bible, and teach the children Bible verses.

GVD: Were young mothers expected to work?

NBD: Mothers with babies were only required to do light work, such as raking leaves, spinning, or sewing, that they might be ready and in condition to nurse their babies.

GVD: How were the slaves provided clothing?

NDB: Another care of hers was to provide clothing for all the negroes, of whom there were over five hundred. To accomplish this, seamstresses were at work all the year round; three in the house and five or six in the negro quarters. These made the men’s and women’s clothing. All the cutting was done under mother’s supervision; and during the early part of the war, all the spinning and weaving of cloth, and even of blankets, was done on the plantation.

Education for the de Saussure Children

GVD: What kind of education was provided for plantation families?

NBD: We had a schoolhouse on the plantation where we went after breakfast with our governess. In those days, as teachers were not paid well for their services, it was difficult to find refined and cultured people to fill the position. Knowing this, father paid the highest salaries and thus secured the best talent there was to be had for us.

GVD: Did your education include exposure to music?

NBD: Besides a governess, we also had a music teacher, so we were expected to devote many hours to practicing music, and thus we were employed while mother was busy housekeeping.

GVD: Did you or your siblings attend college? If so, where?

NBD: As soon as the girls in our family were old enough they were sent North to school to finish their education, and the boys were sent to Northern colleges.

Social Life around a Plantation community

GVD: we have heard that it was common for planters to host guests fairly often, and oftentimes, many at one time. Can you speak to that?

NBD: As there were no inns in our country, and plantations were miles apart, some provision had to be made for the entertainment of travelers, who were never turned away. We often had delightful house parties and hunting parties, but our chief enjoyment was riding through the wild and beautiful country. We also went on fishing excursions, and on picnics. We thought nothing of driving ten miles to dine at a neighbor’s house.

Life and Times in Charleston during the Civil War (1861-1865)

Early in the War

GVD: What were the times like in South Carolina, more specifically, Charleston-area, in March 1861, just a month before the firing on Sumter?

NBD: It was a turbulent time; the feeling ran high between the North and the South, and we heard rumors of war, but it seemed too far away to invade our peaceful country.

The Firing on Sumter, April 1861

GVD: We understand you reached Charleston on April 12th, the very evening (and following eraly morning) that Sumter was fired upon. Tells us about that.

NBD: We reached Charleston about eight o’clock in the evening. My father-in-law met us, and after a warm greeting to the little stranger and ourselves, said, “You are just in time to see the fight at Fort Sumter, for it begins to-night.” I was terrified and begged to be taken home, but there was no train until morning and, therefore, we had to remain.

GVD: You were 24 years old and had a five-week old baby girl in April 1861; did you sleep that night (the 12th)?

NBD: That night I was too frightened to sleep.

GVD: Did you personally observe the bombardment of Ft. Sumter? If so, from what vantage point?

NBD: Toward morning, about four o’clock, the first gun was fired, and it seemed to me as if it were in my room. I sprang up, as I suppose everyone else did in the city. I hurriedly dressed myself and went down to cousin Louis De Saussure’s house, which is still standing on the corner of South and East Battery. From its numerous piazzas, which commanded a fine view of the harbor, we watched every gun fired from the two forts, Moultrie and Sumter.

GVD: Did others join you?

NBD: The house was crowded with excited mothers and wives, who had sons and husbands in the fight, and every hour added to their distress and excitement, as reports, which afterwards proved false, were brought to them of wounded dear ones. It was a day I can never forget.

We spent another most anxious day following an anxious night, but when Fort Sumter took fire and the white flag was raised, our spirits rose over the Southern victory, to confidence and hope.

GVD: Not knowing how long the war would last (four years), and the devastation Charleston would endure; how do you reflect on this today, some 40 years later (1909)?

NBD: We little realized the long years of struggle that were to follow ending in defeat, and ruined homes and country. Later on I was in Charleston several times when it was under shot and shell and heard the explosions of the shells as they shrieked over our houses. Those were sad and exciting times, the awful memories of which are still active with me.

Post-Sumter Days

GVD: We understand that after returning home in May, your husband joined the CSA war effort. Talk about that.

NBD: After a visit of several weeks, we returned to our home in Robertville, and my husband continued his practice, but his restlessness and anxiety to join the army was so great that I ceased to dissuade him. Physicians were needed at home, but he thought the older men should serve there, and the younger go to the front. He joined the Charleston Light Dragoons, and became surgeon of Major Trenholm’s brigade. When this brigade was was transferred to Virginia, he was, on account of his health, detailed to look after the hospitals on the coast.

The Capture of Port Royal, November 1861

GVD: Union forces capture Port Royal in early November 1861. Do you recall much about that?

NBD: Before we left our home, the fort below our country town, Beaufort, was taken, and the Northern fleet sailed in while the inhabitants were asleep. This fight at Port Royal was the second battle of the war.

GVD: What did people do when they learned the Port Royal region was taken by the North?

NBD: When the tidings of the invasions of their town was brought to them, the people, thinking the town would be shelled, fled in their carriages, many of them not waiting to dress themselves, so great was their fright. This long procession of carriages and wagons passed through our village about dusk, the occupants not knowing what to do or where to go. Every house was thrown open to them and these first refugees remained in the neighborhood during the war. They were taken care of, until in turn we had to flee before Sherman’s army.

Late-War Reminscences, Charleston-area

GVD: Take us back to December 1864. It’s late in the war, but of course you had no idea then when the war would be over. But in late 1864 the Eastern seaboard, Georgia and South Carolina particularly, are feeling the effects of Sherman’s famous March to the Sea. Can you talk about that a little?

NBD: The year 1864, in the month of December, found me still in the old homestead [in Robertville]. Sherman had passed on the Georgia side of the river, to Savannah, which was taken. We wondered what would be his next move, but never for an instant thought he would retrace his steps, and go through South Carolina.

GVD: Did your father provide support or care for retreating Southern troops as Sherman marched through South Carolina?

NBD: The Southern troops which had guarded Savannah retreated to our neighborhood, and we cared for them for several weeks. There were at least five thousand troops on our plantation of nine thousand acres. Barbecues of whole beeves, hogs, and sheep were ordered for them. The officers were fed in the house, there being sometimes two hundred a day. The soldiers had their meals in camp.

GVD: What did you do for money during the war?

NBD: For money we had no use, as everything was grown or manufactured on the plantation.

The Effect of War: Ruin and Destruction

GVD: Was your plantation destroyed or damaged by the Union during the war?

NBD: It was a wise provision that father was spared the sight of the destruction of his house and property, and possibly personal violence from the hands of the Northern soldiers, for during the raid, my uncle, an old man who was reputed to be wealthy was asked by the soldiers where he had buried his gold; and twice was he hung by them and cut down when unconscious, because he would not confess its hiding place. He had no gold, his wealth lay in his land and negroes.

GVD: Do you remember the day the Union army arrived at your plantation?

NBD: Shortly after father and mother’s departure, one morning, early, the remaining negroes came running to the house in a state of wild excitement, and said that Sherman’s army was crossing the Savannah River at the next landing below my father’s.

GVD: Do you remember precisely what you were doing that day?

NBD: I was picking oranges when the news came. Green oranges, blossoms, and ripe fruit all hung together on the tree. It was a favorite tree grown to an unusual size by the care given it, as it was always protected in winter. I have only to close my eyes at any time and see plainly the beautiful tree in all its glory of fruit and flower. We had picked from it that day a thousand oranges, the most luscious fruit, but they were left for Sherman’s army to devour, for we were thrown into a panic by the news the negroes brought us, and hastily got into our carriages and fled.

GVD: what happened to your slaves?

NBD: The negroes followed us in wagons, and we left our lovely home as if we had gone for a drive.

Sherman’s march through the Carolinas

GVD: Did you avoid coming in contact with Sherman after fleeing?

NBD: It was a strange fate that Sherman followed us in our flight passing through Columbia and within ten miles of us. His scouts came in and stole all our horses, except a few which we had time to hide in the swamps.

GVD: And your slaves?

NBD: The soldiers ordered many of the negroes, choosing the best young men, to mount the horses and go with them. All of them returned to us that night; they had broken away from camp, but were on foot.

GVD: What happened to Columbia?

NBD: Sherman’s army burned Columbia. Sherman may not have given the order, but he was undoubtedly responsible for the plunder and destruction engaged in by those under his command.

GVD: And . . .

NBD: Officers as well as soldiers had gone into houses and taken all food that could be found and burned it in the yards of the various houses; leaving the women and children to starve.

The War comes to an End

GVD: Finally, in mid-April 1865, you finally heard the news, “The war is over, Lee has surrendered.” What did you think? How did you feel?

NBD: My feelings were tumultuous; joy and sorrow strove with each other. Joy in the hope of having my husband back and the brothers and friends who were left, return to me, but oh, such sorrow over our defeat!

GVD: Did you long to return home to your plantation on the Savannah River?

NBD: As one after another of the family came back to us, worn out and dispirited, our thoughts turned to the dear old home on the Savannah River, and we longed to go back. Before yielding to our desires, it was considered wise for the men of the family to go first and investigate.

GVD: What did they find when they returned?

NBD: They found only ashes and ruin everywhere in our neighborhood, and father’s place, except a few negro cabins, was burned to the ground. There were thirty buildings destroyed. The steam mill, blacksmith’s shop, carpenter’s shop, barns, and house – nothing was left standing except chimney and brick walls to mark the place of our once prosperous, happy home. There was but one fence paling to indicate the site of our little village. The church, too, was burned, and now negro cabins are standing where it once graced the landscape. Our beautiful lawns were plowed up and planted in potatoes and corn by the negroes, who were told we would never return.

GVD: We’ve heard that even many years after the war was over, that people from the North sent personal items back that were stolen during the war by Northern soldiers. Things like pictures, jewelry, and Bibles too.

NBD: . . . . even family Bibles, which were taken from the old homes, have been returned to me. Looting was the order of the day during the Civil War, and wanton destruction followed.

GVD: The destruction and loss must have been very difficult to bear. Your final thoughts about the destruction you and your family experienced?

NBD: Sherman left a track of fire for three hundred miles through the State. When you hear the war song “Marching through Georgia,” which stirs the hearts of the Northerner, think of the scenes of desolation and heartbreak the song recalls to the Southerner

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6 thoughts on “Life on a plantation: Interview with N.B. de Saussure

  1. Wow what a fascinating woman, That is why I am proud to be from Mississippi. Southerners have a bond with our ancestors and history that many people outside the South can’t comprehend….

  2. I am glad to be able to read such first-hand accounts of plantation life, the effects of war upon such a lifestyle and the aftermath of conflict.
    Thank you for printing Nancy’s story.

  3. what an amazing story. I was born in 1958 before intergration. I can remember my grandmother telling stories of the Old South that where told to her by grandmother who was a child during the Civil War. These kind of stories are incredible documentation of what life was like not so long ago. It seems that each generation cares less and less about their legacy and I find that very sad.

  4. A very interesting interview, particularly this one woman’s perspective about everyday antebellum life. We have to remember however, that it is this one individual’s perspective and should not be taken as objective fact, particularly on such nuanced topics as the feelings of enslaved people towards their owners. I have read many WPA narratives by formerly enslaved men and women who did not enjoy being owned by another human being, even those who were owned by what some might consider “kind masters.” (A question to ask is: how would you like to be owned by a master, regardless of how kind he/she is?)We also have to consider relations between those in power and those who are held in subordination. As a very basic example: if you strongly hated working for your boss, would you tell him/her? The fact is, many of us put up with jobs we loathe without candidly expressing this to our superiors. In fact, we might be pleasant to our superiors, colleagues and customers when we dread seeing them each day. And certainly our boss doesn’t own us nor has the ability to sell our spouse, children, parents, etc. This is the kind of relationship that slaves found themselves in with their masters, so it isn’t necessarily wise to take the master’s opinion (the person in power) as a total and all-encompassing truth.

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