Mary Ames and Emily Bliss, two well-to-do young white women, heeded the call of duty and headed to Edisto Island in May 1865. The Civil War had just ended, and they intended to set up a school for people freed from slavery.
Mary Ames was the daughter of David Ames, Jr., a paper manufacturer in Springfield, Mass. She kept an account of her year on Edisto Island, S.C., in her diary, A New England Woman’s Diary in Dixie in 1865.
At the beginning of the Civil War, many planters abandoned Edisto Island, one of the Sea Islands. Escaped slaves then set up refugee camps there. A number of small skirmishes took place on the island during the war, and it fell into Union hands. Eventually Union troops abandoned the island.
As the war wound down, Union Army Gen. Rufus Saxton recommended Edisto Island as a new colony for newly free black families. Few rebels had stayed, and Edisto had already served as a colony for liberated slaves.
After the war ended, Saxton, who also came from western Massachusetts, served as assistant commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau. But then President Andrew Johnson fired him because of his policy of settling freed slaves on property confiscated from white landowners in the Sea Islands.
Just weeks after the Civil War ended, Mary and Emily each took an oath in Boston as teachers for the Freedman’s Bureau. On May 1, they boarded a steamer bound for Hilton Head.
They arrived at Edisto Island in an old Army wagon on May 10. By then, many liberated slaves had resettled on the island’s former cotton plantations. Mary and Emily set up camp in an abandoned plantation house with windows gone and shutters hanging by one hinge. They selected two rooms to live in, and their African-American neighbors helped clean the dirt from the floors with gray moss, as they had no brooms or mops.
On May 12, 1865, Mary Ames, then in her mid-20s, wrote in her diary,
The first thing we did this morning was to get our flag hung out in front of the house. It is quite large and floated out finely. The negroes appeared glad to see it. We unpacked the big box, turning it on its side to serve for a table and washstand.
Jim and Sarah, with six children, are living in the back part of this house. We are glad to have them for protection, and find them useful.
Sarah is a fine-looking woman, quiet and sensible. She has always been a house-servant, was born and reared in Richmond, was sold with three children to Dr. Leavitt of Charleston, leaving the father of her children in Richmond. Since that, she has had six children, having had five husbands, or men with whom she was obliged to live, as she was sold from one master to another. Jim was the last one. At the beginning of the war, Sarah and her children were sent with her mistress to Sumterville.
Jim and Sarah
When Sherman and his army came along, Sarah was told by her mistress that if she followed the army she must take all her children, not thinking she would go.
When the mistress found that Jim and Sarah were actually going, she asked one of the Union officers to make Sarah stay behind. He told her he had no power to do that; the woman was free and could act her own pleasure.
Sarah had a mind to stay on, as her mistress had always treated her kindly, but Jim insisted on joining Sherman’s train. Just before they left, one Saturday Campbell, who had been one of Sarah’s five husbands, and was the father of her child Anne, came and claimed Sarah. Jim fought and conquered him, thus winning Sarah and her children. They walked nearly a hundred miles, Sarah carrying Margery, a two-year-old child, in her arms. She kept the other children in front of her, for many lost their children.
After dinner of tea and crackers, which was our breakfast and supper also for nearly three weeks, we visited our neighbors. Their faces shone when we told them why we had come. They all seemed decent and sensible creatures.
We learn that there are ten thousand negroes here. The officers and the teachers are the only white people allowed on the island, except the commissary, who is four miles away.
Life on Edisto Island
The negroes go to him once a month for rations. Sherman’s plan is to have the negroes take care of themselves; they have planted corn, beans, and cotton, and are to repay the Government when their crops are gathered. This seems to be understood by all.
We walked down the road to a church, which bore marks of destruction similar to those of our house. The frame of the organ remains, the windows are gone, doors off their hinges, and pews mutilated, but we decided that it would serve our purpose well as a school-house.
We have announced that we will open school Monday. Many of the older blacks ask if they are too old to learn to read. They cannot come to school during the day as it is planting time, so we have promised to have an evening school at the house twice a week.
We have engaged Sarah, for five or six dollars a month, to wash, iron, and do the little cooking we shall have.
Her second son, Zack, about fourteen, is to wait upon us. He was with Dr. Leavitt, at Fort Sumter, and one day a horse on which he was riding was killed by a Union shell.
At the sutler’s we found a man who is both baker and carpenter. He is to put locks or bolts on our doors, and to set some window glass.
All the negroes we have seen are industrious, and their cabins look neat. We found plum trees loaded with fruit all along the way, and plenty of blackberries.