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HOME > Biographical > Harriet Beecher Stowe > CHAPTER VI.
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Milly Edmondson is an aged woman, now upwards of seventy. She has received the slave’s inheritance of entire ignorance. She cannot read a letter of a book, nor write her own name; but the writer must say that she was never so impressed with any presentation of the Christian religion as that which was made to her in the language and appearance of this woman during the few interviews that she had with her. The circumstances of the interviews will be detailed at length in the course of the story.

Milly is above the middle height, of a large, full figure. She dresses with the greatest attention to neatness. A plain 156Methodist cap shades her face, and the plain white Methodist handkerchief is folded across the bosom. A well-preserved stuff gown, and clean white apron, with a white pocket-handkerchief pinned to her side, completes the inventory of the costume in which the writer usually saw her. She is a mulatto, and must once have been a very handsome one. Her eyes and smile are still uncommonly beautiful, but there are deep-wrought lines of patient sorrow and weary endurance on her face, which tell that this lovely and noble-hearted woman has been all her life a slave.

Milly Edmondson was kept by her owners and allowed to live with her husband, with the express understanding and agreement that her service and value was to consist in breeding up her own children to be sold in the slave-market. Her legal owner was a maiden lady of feeble capacity, who was set aside by the decision of court as incompetent to manage her affairs.

The estate—that is to say, Milly Edmondson and her children—was placed in the care of a guardian. It appears that Milly’s poor, infirm mistress was fond of her, and that Milly exercised over her much of that ascendency which a strong mind holds over a weak one. Milly’s husband, Paul Edmondson was a free man. A little of her history, as she related it to the writer, will now be given in her own words:

“Her mistress,” she said, “was always kind to her ‘poor thing!’ but then she hadn’t sperit ever to speak for herself, and her friends wouldn’t let her have her own way. It always laid on my mind,” she said, “that I was a slave. When I wan’t more than fourteen years old, Missis was doing some work one day that she thought she couldn’t trust me with, and she says to me, ‘Milly, now you see it’s I that am the slave, and not you.’ I says to her, ‘Ah, Missis, I am a poor slave, for all that.’ I’s sorry afterwards I said it, for I thought it seemed to hurt her feelings.

“Well, after a while, when I got engaged to Paul, I loved Paul very much; but I thought it wan’t right to bring children into the world to be slaves, and I told our folks that I was never going to marry, though I did love Paul. But that wan’t to be allowed,” she said, with a mysterious air.

“What do you mean?” said I.

“Well, they told me I must marry, or I should be turned out of the church—so it was,” she added, with a significant nod.—“Well, Paul and me, we was married, and we was happy enough, if it hadn’t been for that; but when our first child was born I says to him, ‘There ‘t is, now, Paul, our troubles is begun; this child isn’t ours.’ And every child I had, it grew worse and worse. ‘O, Paul,’ says I, ‘what a thing it is to have children that isn’t ours!’ Paul he says to me, ‘Milly, my dear, if they be God’s children, it an’t so much matter whether they be ours or no; they may be heirs of the kingdom, Milly, for all that.’ Well, when Paul’s mistress died, she set him free, and he got him a little place out about fourteen miles from Washington; and they let me live out there with him, and take home my tasks; for they had that confidence in me that they always know’d that what I said I’d do was as good done as if they’d seen it done. I had mostly sewing; sometimes a shirt to make in a day,—it was coarse like, you know,—or a pair of sheets, or some such; but, whatever ‘t was, I always got it done. Then I had all my house-work and babies to take care of; and many’s the time, after ten o’clock, I’ve took my children’s clothes and washed ‘em all out and ironed ‘em late in the night, ‘cause I couldn’t never bear to see my children dirty,—always wanted to see ‘em sweet and clean, and I brought ‘em up and taught ‘em the very best ways I was able. But nobody knows what I suffered; I never see a white man come on to the place that I didn’t think, ‘There, now, he’s coming to look at my children;’ and when I saw any white man going by, I’ve called in my children and hid ‘em, for fear he’d see ‘em and want to buy ‘em. O, ma’am, mine’s been a long sorrow, a long sorrow! I’ve borne this heavy cross a great many years.”

“But,” said I, “the Lord has been with you.”

She answered, with very strong emphasis, “Ma’am, if the Lord hadn’t held me up, I shouldn’t have been alive this day. O, sometimes my heart’s been so heavy, it seemed as if I must die; and then I’ve been to the throne of grace, and when I’d poured out all my sorrows there, I came away light, and felt that I could live a little longer.”

This language is exactly her own. She had often a forcible and peculiarly beautiful manner of expressing herself, which impressed what she said strongly.

Paul and Milly Edmondson were both devout communicants in the Methodist Episcopal Church at Washington, and the testimony to their blamelessness of life and the 157consistence of their piety is unanimous from all who know them. In their simple cottage, made respectable by neatness and order, and hallowed by morning and evening prayer, they trained up their children, to the best of their poor ability, in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, to be sold in the slave-market. They thought themselves only too happy, as one after another arrived at the age when they were to be sold, that they were hired to families in their vicinity, and not thrown into the trader’s pen to be drafted for the dreaded southern market!

The mother, feeling, with a constant but repressed anguish, the weary burden of slavery which lay upon her, was accustomed, as she told the writer, thus to warn her daughters:

“Now, girls, don’t you never come to the sorrows that I have. Don’t you never marry till you get your liberty. Don’t you marry, to be mothers to children that an’t your own.”

As a result of this education, some of her older daughters, in connection with the young men to whom they were engaged, raised the sum necessary to pay for their freedom before they were married. One of these young women, at the time that she paid for her freedom, was in such feeble health that the physician told her that she could not live many months, and advised her to keep the money, and apply it to making herself as comfortable as she could.

She answered, “If I had only two hours to live, I would pay down that money to die free.”

If this was setting an extravagant value on liberty, it is not for an American to say so.

All the sons and daughters of this family were distinguished both for their physical and mental developments, and therefore were priced exceedingly high in the market. The whole family, rated by the market prices which have been paid for certain members of it, might be estimated as an estate of fifteen thousand dollars. They were distinguished for intelligence, honesty and faithfulness, but above all for the most devoted attachment to each other. These children, thus intelligent, were all held as slaves in the city of Washington, the very capital where our national government is conducted. Of course, the high estimate which their own mother taught them to place upon liberty was in the way of being constantly strengthened and reinforced by such addresses, celebrations and speeches, on the subject of liberty, as every one knows are constantly being made, on one occasion or another, in our national capital.

On the 13th day of April, the little schooner Pearl, commanded by Daniel Drayton, came to anchor in the Potomac river, at Washington.

The news had just arrived of a revolution in France, and the establishment of a democratic government, and all Washington was turning out to celebrate the triumph of Liberty.

The trees in the avenue were fancifully hung with many-colored lanterns,—drums beat, bands of music played, the houses of the President and other high officials were illuminated, and men, women and children, were all turned out to see the procession, and to join in the shouts of liberty that rent the air. Of course, all the slaves of the city, lively, fanciful and sympathetic, most excitable as they are by music and by dazzling spectacles, were everywhere listening, seeing, and rejoicing, in ignorant joy. All the heads of department, senators, representatives, and dignitaries of all kinds, marched in procession to an open space on Pennsylvania Avenue, and there delivered congratulatory addresses on the progress of universal freedom. With unheard-of imprudence, the most earnest defenders of slave-holding institutions poured down on the listening crowd, both of black and white, bond and free, the most inflammatory and incendiary sentiments. Such, for example, as the following language of Hon. Frederick P. Stanton, of Tennessee:

We do not, indeed, propagate our principles with the sword of power; but there is one sense in which we are propagandists. We cannot help being so. Our example is contagious. In the section of this great country where I live, on the banks of the mighty Mississippi river, we have the true emblem of the tree of liberty. There you may see the giant cotton-wood spreading his branches widely to the winds of heaven. Sometimes the current lays bare his roots, and you behold them extending far around, and penetrating to an immense depth in the soil. When the season of maturity comes, the air is filled with a cotton-like substance, which floats in every direction, bearing on its light wings the living seeds of the mighty tree. Thus the seeds of freedom have emanated from the tree of our liberties. They fill the air. They are wafted to every part of the habitable globe. And even in the barren sands of tyranny they are destined to take root. The tree of liberty will spring up everywhere, and nations shall recline in its shade.

Senator Foote, of Mississippi, also, used this language:

Such has been the extraordinary course of events 158in France, and in Europe, within the last two months, that the more deliberately we survey the scene which has been spread out before us, and the more rigidly we scrutinize the conduct of its actors, the more confident does our conviction become that the glorious work which has been so well begun cannot possibly fail of complete accomplishment; that the age of TYRANTS AND SLAVERY is rapidly drawing to a close; and that the happy period to be signalized by the universal emancipation of man from the fetters of civil oppression, and the recognition in all countries of the great principles of popular sovereignty, equality, and BROTHERHOOD, is, at this moment, visibly commencing.

Will any one be surprised, after this, that seventy-seven of the most intelligent young slaves, male and female, in Washington city, honestly taking Mr. Foote and his brother senators at their word, and believing that the age of tyrants and slavery was drawing to a close, banded together, and made an effort to obtain their part in this reign of universal brotherhood?

The schooner Pearl was lying in the harbor, and Captain Drayton was found to have the heart of a man. Perhaps he, too, had listened to the addresses on Pennsylvania Avenue, and thought, in the innocence of his heart, that a man who really did something to promote universal emancipation was no worse than the men who only made speeches about it.

At any rate, Drayton was persuaded to allow these seventy-seven slaves to secrete themselves in the hold of his vessel, and among them were six children of Paul and Milly Edmondson. The incidents of the rest of the narrative will now be given as obtained from Mary and Emily Edmondson, by the lady in whose family they have been placed by the writer for an education.

Some few preliminaries maybe necessary, in order to understand the account.

A respectable colored man, by the name of Daniel Bell, who had purchased his own freedom, resided in the city of Washington. His wife, with her eight children, were set free by her master, when on his death-bed. The heirs endeavored to break the will, on the ground that he was not of sound mind at the time of its preparation. The magistrate, however, before whom it was executed, by his own personal knowledge of the competence of the man at the time, was enabled to defeat their purpose;—the family, therefore, lived as free for some years. On the death of this magistrate, the heirs again brought the case into court, and, as it seemed likely to be decided against the family, they resolved to secure their legal rights by flight, and engaged passage on board the vessel of Captain Drayton. Many of their associates and friends, stirred up, perhaps, by the recent demonstrations in favor of liberty, begged leave to accompany them, in their flight. The seeds of the cotton-wood were flying everywhere, and springing up in all hearts; so that, on the eventful evening of the 15th of April, 1848, not less than seventy-seven men, women and children, with beating hearts, and anxious secrecy, stowed themselves away in the hold of the little schooner, and Captain Drayton was so wicked that he could not, for the life of him, say “Nay” to one of them.

Richard Edmondson had long sought to buy his liberty; had toiled for it early and late; but the price set upon him was so high that he despaired of ever earning it. On this evening, he and his three brothers thought, as the reign of universal brotherhood had begun, and the reign of tyrants and slavery come to an end, that they would take to themselves and their sisters that sacred gift of liberty, which all Washington had been informed, two evenings before, it was the peculiar province of America to give to all nations. Their two sisters, aged sixteen and fourteen, were hired out in families in the city. On this evening Samuel Edmondson called at the house where Emily lived, and told her of the projected plan.

“But what will mother think?” said Emily.

“Don’t stop to think of her; she would rather we’d be free than to spend time to talk about her.”

“Well, then, if Mary will go, I will.”

The girls give as a reason for wishing to escape, that though they had never suffered hardships or been treated unkindly, yet they knew they were liable at any time to be sold into rigorous bondage, and separated far from all they loved.

They then all went on board the Pearl, which was lying a little way off from the place where vessels usually anchor. There they found a company of slaves, seventy-seven in number.

At twelve o’clock at night the silent wings of the little schooner were spread, and with her weight of fear and mystery she glided out into the stream. A fresh breeze sprang up, and by eleven o’clock next night they had sailed two hundred miles from Washington, and began to think that liberty was gained. They anchored in a place called Cornfield Harbor, intending to wait for daylight. All laid down to sleep in peaceful 159security, lulled by the gentle rock of the vessel and the rippling of the waters.

But at two o’clock at night they were roused by terrible noises on deck, scuffling, screaming, swearing and groaning. A steamer had pursued and overtaken them, and the little schooner was boarded by an infuriated set of armed men. In a moment, the captain, mate and all the crew, were seized and bound, amid oaths and dreadful threats. As they, swearing and yelling, tore open the hatches on the defenceless prisoners below, Richard Edmondson stepped forward, and in a calm voice said to them, “Gentlemen, do yourselves no harm, for we are all here.” With this exception, all was still among the slaves as despair could make it; not a word was spoken in the whole company. The men were all bound and placed on board the steamer; the women were left on board the schooner, to be towed after.

The explanation of their capture was this: In the morning after they had sailed, many families in Washington found their slaves missing, and the event created as great an excitement as the emancipation of France had, two days before. At that time they had listened in the most complacent manner to the announcement that the reign of slavery was near its close, because they had not the slightest idea that the language meant anything; and they were utterly confounded by this practical application of it. More than a hundred men, mounted upon horses, determined to push out into the country, in pursuit of these new disciples of the doctrine of universal emancipation. Here a colored man, by the name of Judson Diggs, betrayed the whole plot. He had been provoked, because, after having taken a poor woman, with her luggage, down to the boat, she was unable to pay the twenty-five cents that he demanded. So he told these admirers of universal brotherhood that they need not ride into the country, as their slaves had sailed down the river, and were far enough off by this time. A steamer was immediately manned by two hundred armed men, and away they went in pursuit.

When the cortege arrived with the captured slaves, there was a most furious excitement in the city. The men were driven through the streets bound with ropes, two and two. Showers of taunts and jeers rained upon them from all sides. One man asked one of the girls if she “didn’t feel pretty to be caught running away,” and another asked her “if she wasn’t sorry.” She answered, “No, if it was to do again to-morrow, she would do the same.” The man turned to a bystander and said, “Han’t she got good spunk?”

But the most vehement excitement was against Drayton and Sayres, the captain and mate of the vessel. Ruffians armed with dirk-knives and pistols crowded around them, with the most horrid threats. One of them struck so near Drayton as to cut his ear, which Emily noticed as bleeding. Meanwhile there mingled in the crowd multitudes of the relatives of the captives, who, looking on them as so many doomed victims, bewailed and lamented them. A brother-in-law of the Edmondsons was so overcome when he saw them that he fainted away and fell down in the street, and was carried home insensible. The sorrowful news spread to the cottage of Paul and Milly Edmondson; and, knowing that all their children were now probably doomed to the southern market, they gave themselves up to sorrow. “O! what a day that was!” said the old mother when describing that scene to the writer. “Never a morsel of anything could I put into my mouth. Paul and me we fasted and prayed before the Lord, night and day, for our poor children.”

The whole public sentiment of the community was roused to the most intense indignation. It was repeated from mouth to mouth that they had been kindly treated and never abused; and what could have induced them to try to get their liberty? All that Mr. Stanton had said of the insensible influence of American institutions, and all his pretty similes about the cotton-wood seeds, seemed entirely to have escaped the memory of the community, and they could see nothing but the most unheard-of depravity in the attempt of these people to secure freedom. It was strenuously advised by many that their owners should not forgive them,—that no mercy should be shown, but that they should be thrown into the hands of the traders, forthwith, for the southern market,—that Siberia of the irresponsible despots of America.

When all the prisoners were lodged in jail, the owners came to make oath to their property, and the property also was required to make oath to their owners. Among them came the married sisters of Mary and Emily, but were not allowed to enter the prison. The girls looked through the iron grates of the third-story windows, and saw their sisters standing below in the yard weeping.

The guardian of the Edmondsons, who acted in the place of the real owner, apparently 160touched with their sorrow, promised their family and friends, who were anxious to purchase them, if possible, that they should have an opportunity the next morning. Perhaps he intended at the time to give them one; but, as Bruin and Hill, the keepers of the large slave warehouse in Alexandria, offered him four thousand five hundred dollars for the six children, they were irrevocably sold before the next morning. Bruin would listen to no terms which any of their friends could propose. The lady with whom Mary had lived offered a thousand dollars for her; but Bruin refused, saying he could get double that sum in the New Orleans market. He said he had had his eye upon the family for twelve years, and had the promise of them should they ever be sold.

While the girls remained in the prison they had no beds or chairs, and only one blanket each, though the nights were chilly; but, understanding that the rooms below, where their brothers were confined, were still colder, and that no blankets were given them, they sent their own down to them. In the morning they were allowed to go down into the yard for a few moments; and then they used to run to the window of their brothers’ room, to bid them good-morning, and kiss them through the grate.

At ten o’clock, Thursday night, the brothers were handcuffed, and, with their sisters, taken into carriages by their new owners, driven to Alexandria, and put into a prison called a Georgia Pen. The girls were put into a large room alone, in total darkness, without bed or blanket, where they spent the night in sobs and tears, in utter ignorance of their brothers’ fate. At eight o’clock in the morning they were called to breakfast, when, to their great comfort, they found their four brothers all in the same prison.

They remained here about four weeks, being usually permitted by day to stay below with their brothers, and at night to return to their own rooms. Their brothers had great anxieties about them, fearing they would be sold south. Samuel, in particular, felt very sadly, as he had been the principal actor in getting them away. He often said he would gladly die for them, if that would save them from the fate he feared. He used to weep a great deal, though he endeavored to restrain his tears in their presence.

While in the slave-prison they were required to wash for thirteen men, though their brothers performed a great share of the labor. Before they left, their size and height were measured by their owners. At length they were again taken out, the brothers handcuffed, and all put on board a steamboat, where were about forty slaves, mostly men, and taken to Baltimore. The voyage occupied one day and a night. When arrived in Baltimore, they were thrown into a slave-pen kept by a partner of Bruin and Hill. He was a man of coarse habits, constantly using the most profane language, and grossly obscene and insulting in his remarks to women. Here they were forbidden to pray together, as they had previously been accustomed to do. But, by rising very early in the morning, they secured to themselves a little interval which they could employ, uninterrupted, in this manner. They, with four or five other women in the prison, used to meet together, before daybreak, to spread their sorrows before the Refuge of the afflicted; and in these prayers the hard-hearted slave-dealer was daily remembered. The brothers of Mary and Emily were very gentle and tender in their treatment of their sisters, which had an influence upon other men in their company.

At this place they became acquainted with Aunt Rachel, a most godly woman, about middle age, who had been sold into the prison away from her husband. The poor husband used often to come to the prison and beg the trader to sell her to his owners, who he thought were willing to purchase her, if the price was not too high. But he was driven off with brutal threats and curses. They remained in Baltimore about three weeks.

The friends in Washington, though hitherto unsuccessful in their efforts to redeem the family, were still exerting themselves in their behalf; and one evening a message was received from them by telegraph, stating that a person would arrive in the morning train of cars prepared to bargain for the family, and that a part of the money was now ready. But the trader was inexorable, and in the morning, an hour before the cars were to arrive, they were all put on board the brig union, ready to sail for New Orleans. The messenger came, and brought nine hundred dollars in money, the gift of a grandson of John Jacob Astor. This was finally appropriated to the ransom of Richard Edmondson, as his wife and children were said to be suffering in Washington; and the trader would not sell the 161girls to them upon any consideration, nor would he even suffer Richard to be brought back from the brig, which had not yet sailed. The bargain was, however, made, and the money deposited in Baltimore.

On this brig the eleven women were put in one small apartment, and the thirty or forty men in an adjoining one. Emily was very sea-sick most of the time, and her brothers feared she would die. They used to come and carry her out on deck and back again, buy little comforts for their sisters, and take all possible care of them.

Frequently head winds blew them back, so that they made very slow progress; and in their prayer-meetings, which they held every night, they used to pray that head winds might blow them to New York; and one of the sailors declared that if they could get within one hundred miles of New York, and the slaves would stand by him, he would make way with the captain, and pilot them into New York himself.

When they arrived near Key West, they hoisted a signal for a pilot, the captain being aware of the dangers of the place, and yet not knowing how to avoid them. As the pilot-boat approached, the slaves were all fastened below, and a heavy canvas thrown over the grated hatchway door, which entirely excluded all circulation of air, and almost produced suffocation. The captain and pilot had a long talk about the price, and some altercation ensued, the captain not being willing to give the price demanded by the pilot; during which time there was great suffering below. The women became so exhausted that they were mostly helpless; and the situation of the men was not much better, though they managed with a stick to break some holes through the canvas on their side, so as to let in a little air, but a few only of the strongest could get there to enjoy it. Some of them shouted for help as long as their strength would permit; and at length, after what seemed to them an almost interminable interview, the pilot left, refusing to assist them; the canvas was removed, and the brig obliged to turn tack, and take another course. Then, one after another, as they got air and strength, crawled out on deck. Mary and Emily were carried out by their brothers as soon as they were able to do it.

Soon after this the stock of provisions ran low, and the water failed, so that the slaves were restricted to a gill a day. The sailors were allowed a quart each, and often gave a pint of it to one of the Edmondsons for their sisters; and they divided it with the other women, as they always did every nice thing they got in such ways.

The day they arrived at the mouth of the Mississippi a terrible storm arose, and the waves rolled mountain high, so that, when the pilot-boat approached, it would sometimes seem to be entirely swallowed by the waves, and again it would emerge, and again appear wholly buried. At length they were towed into and up the river by a steamer, and there, for the first time, saw cotton plantations, and gangs of slaves at work on them.

They arrived at New Orleans in the night, and about ten the next day were landed and marched to what they called the show-rooms, and, going out into the yard, saw a great many men and women sitting around, with such sad faces that Emily soon began to cry, upon which an overseer stepped up and struck her on the chin, and bade her “stop crying, or he would give her something to cry about.” Then pointing, he told her “there was the calaboose, where they whipped those who did not behave themselves!” As soon as he turned away, a slave-woman came and told her to look cheerful, if she possibly could, as it would be far better for her. One of her brothers soon came to inquire what the woman had been saying to her; and when informed, encouraged Emily to follow the advice, and endeavored to profit by it himself.

That night all the four brothers had their hair cut close, their mustaches shaved off, and their usual clothing exchanged for a blue jacket and pants, all of which so altered their appearance that at first their sisters did not know them. Then, for three successive days, they were all obliged to stand in an open porch fronting the street, for passers by to look at, except, when one was tired out, she might go in for a little time, and another take her place. Whenever buyers called, they were paraded in the auction-room in rows, exposed to coarse jokes and taunts. When any one took a liking to any girl in the company, he would call her to him, take hold of her, open her mouth, look at her teeth, and handle her person rudely, frequently making obscene remarks; and she must stand and bear it, without resistance. Mary and Emily complained to their brothers that they could not submit to such treatment. They conversed about it with Wilson, a partner of Bruin and Hill, who had the charge of the slaves at this prison. After this they were treated with more decency.

Another brother of the girls, named Hamilton, 162had been a slave in or near New Orleans for sixteen years, and had just purchased his own freedom for one thousand dollars; having once before earned that sum for himself, and then had it taken from him. Richard being now really free, as the money was deposited in Baltimore for his ransom, found him out the next day after their arrival at New Orleans, and brought him to the prison to see his brothers and sisters. The meeting was overpoweringly affecting.

He had never before seen his sister Emily, as he had been sold away from his parents before her birth.

The girls’ lodging-room was occupied at night by about twenty or thirty women, who all slept on the bare floor, with only a blanket each. After a few days, word was received (which was really incorrect), that half the money had been raised for the redemption of Mary and Emily. After this they were allowed, upon their brothers’ earnest request, to go to their free brother’s house and spend their nights, and return in the mornings, as they had suffered greatly from the mosquitos and other insects, and their feet were swollen and sore.

While at this prison, some horrible cases of cruelty came to their knowledge, and some of them under their own observation. Two persons, one woman and one boy, were whipped to death in the prison while they were there, though they were not in the same pen, or owned by the same trader, as themselves.

None of the slaves were allowed to sleep in the day-time, and sometimes little children sitting or standing idle all day would become so sleepy as not to be able to hold up their eyelids; but, if they were caught thus by the overseer, they were cruelly beaten. Mary and Emily used to watch th............
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