In 1865, Youth’s Companion printed a series of articles by abolitionist James Redpath, who contributed several pieces from 1865 to 1867. In “Eye and Ear Notes,” he offered readers of the Companion descriptions of Southern incidents before and just after the War: everything from a slave auction to a patriotic May-day celebration. The pieces are surprisingly gritty and often have a raw power.
[Scraps for Youth] “Eye and Ear Notes: May-Day in Charleston,” S. C., by “Uncle James” [James Redpath] (from The Youth’s Companion, June 1, 1865; p. 86)

I suppose you have forgotten all about me, it is so long since I last wrote you. I was then in New York city, on my way to South Carolina. When Charleston fell, I was out in the bay, and saw the star spangled banner hoisted on Fort Sumter. Two days afterwards I landed in Charleston, the great rebel city, and here I have since lived.

I might tell you a great deal about Charleston, but to-day I will speak of one incident only—the first celebration of May-day in free South Carolina.

When our soldiers were made prisoners by the rebels they were carried to Belle Isle, near Richmond, or to Salisbury, in North Carolina, or to Andersonville, in Georgia, or to Charleston. They were treated with great cruelty everywhere. The officers were kept in prisons and jail-yards, and had little to eat, but sometimes they had shelter; and if they happened to have money,—if it was not stolen from them,—they could buy food, at high prices, from the rebel sutlers. But the unhappy soldiers (“the privates,” or “enlisted men,”) were kept out in the open fields. Here they were detained on what is called the Race Course. Charleston was once noted as the head-quarters of a jockey club, and many of the finest horses in the country were owned, and raised, and raced here. This jockey club possessed a fine, level tract of land outside of the city, on which they built a large house and a judge’s stand, and in front of this structure the races came off every year.

Our brave young soldiers who were sent to Charleston were kept on this ground, without any houses, or huts, or tents to shelter them from the rain, or the fierce sun, or the deadly dews of the summer night. Not one in ten had any sort of tent. Many of them were more than half naked, and all of them were more than half starved. There was no fence around this field of death, but there was a ditch dug, with rebel guards beyond it, and any one who came near it was instantly shot dead. Robust, healthy young men soon sickened under this cruelty, and many of them died. Two hundred and fifty-seven of them were found dead, and were buried in an enclosed piece of pasture near by. How do you think the rebels buried them? If seven were found dead, for example, they caused some of our soldiers to dig a trench—a shallow pit, seldom more than three feet deep,—and then they would throw the corpses of our brothers in, place them side by side, without coffins, and often stripping them naked first! There were no religious rites performed. No clergyman read the service for the dead; no sympathizing eye looked on; and no heart beat sadly for our martyrs. The rebels covered them up, making little rows on the top of the long mound, to show how many corpses lay in the long grave beneath, and at the head of each a piece of board with a number on it—“No. 1,” “No.2,” and so on up to “No. 257.” Nothing more on any of them.

One day twenty-one died and were covered up in one trench!

Those soldiers who were taken to the hospital before they died were buried in the same way, in an open common called the Potter’s Field.

Accompanied by a few friends, I went out one day and saw their graves; and on them the marks of the hoofs of cattle and horses and of the feet of men. Very sad we felt when we looked on these melancholy red mounds and on this wicked profanation of the resting-places of our martyrs. We all sat down and thought what we should do. We resolved to have a fence built around it, and, if we could raise the money, a monument erected to the memory of the soldiers who rested from their sufferings below. The general gave me liberty to pull down some rebel buildings not far off, and nearly thirty colored men volunteered to put up the fence, without any wages or reward. Very soon there was more than half an acre enclosed.

On May-day I told all the colored children of the free schools of Charleston to go out to the Race Course with bouquets of roses and other sweet-smelling flowers, and throw them on the graves of our martyrs. Nearly three thousand children went out, and perhaps double that number of grown-up people. The children marched from the Race Course singing the John Brown Song, and then, silently and reverently, and with heads uncovered, they entered the burial ground and covered the graves with flowers. Afterwards they went to the fields near by and sang the Star Spangled Banner,” “America,” and “Rally Round the Flag.”

This is how the colored children spent May-day in Charleston. It was the first free May-day gathering they had ever enjoyed. Large numbers of them had been slaves until the Yankees came into Charleston and released them from their bondage. And they love the Yankees—these little curly-headed boys and girls. They like you to call them Yankees. And when I tell them that I am here to teach them all to be Yankees, they are very proud of it, and do every thing I tell them to do, in order that they may be like the Yankees, and be Yankees, too. Sometimes I catch one of them and ask him whether he is a secesh or a Yankee; and they always say, with a good deal of pride:

“I’s a Yankee.”

I’ll tell you more about these South Carolina Yankees at some other time. They are first-rate little fellows, and as smart, some of them, as steel traps.

Copyright 1999-2024, Pat Pflieger
To “Nineteenth-Century American Children & What They Read
Some of the children | Some of their books | Some of their magazines
To “Voices from 19th-Century America
Some works for adults, 1800-1872
To Titles at this site | Authors at this site | Subjects at this site | Works by date | Map of the site

Talk to me.