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 Again,” by “Uncle James” [James Redpath] (from The Youth’s Companion, June 8, 1865; p. 90)

When I told you about my visit to the Race Course in Charleston, where our imprisoned soldiers were confined, I forgot to say that there was one sight here that was even sadder than the sight of the graves of the murdered prisoners. It was their beds. “Their beds,” you say, “did they leave them there?” Yes. They were not on mahogany bedsteads, nor oaken bedsteads, nor even iron bedsteads; they were not feather beds, and alas! they were not beds of down. They were beds of stunted grass, with little trenches or gutters cut around them. Generally these beds were about six feet long and wide enough to let five or six men lie side by side.

Do you know why our poor, starved, abused soldiers cut these little gutters in the hard earth, instead of lying down anywhere? It was to keep themselves dry; for the ground was level, and when the rain fell heavily (and, as they say, it comes down in bucketfuls in summer here,) the earth would have been saturated if they had not dug these little gulleys to drain off the water.

How would you like to lie on the bare ground in all sorts of weather, with a city full of houses in sight, but no roof to cover you; with woods near by, but not fuel enough to cook your scanty and half-rotten rations with, and no shade, with shade trees everywhere in view? Our soldiers had to suffer such fiendish cruelty.

This was not all. The sandy soil is full of loathsome, unclean creatures, and the prisoners had no means of keeping themselves clean. So they were tormented with these vermin and with swarms of sand-flies and mosquitoes. As some of them had no trousers, their legs were blistered with the heat, and then they became festered and full of sores.

And to all this suffering were added the awful agonies of hunger. They never had half enough, even of putrid food, to eat. Some of them became raving mad with hunger. Food! Food! FOOD! was their constant thought and cry. The rebels drove away the colored people who tried to bring our prisoners food, and threatened the Irish and German women who threw bread across the ditch to them.

The rich slaveholders in the city never said one word in condemnation of this cruelty, never tried to stop it, never visited our prisoners; and now they have the hardihood to deny that our soldiers were cruelly treated.

Ah, my young friends, injustice so hardens the heart that every crime seems right and every cruelty justifiable in the sight of the wrong-doer. They who had so long and cruelly oppressed their slaves were indifferent to the sufferings of the anti-slavery soldiers.

But I meant to tell you of another May-day celebration in Charleston. It came off on the second day of May, and was the first anniversary gathering of the Heralds of the Cross. The Heralds of the Cross is a society of colored children who clubbed together to buy nice food for their sick members, and to bury them when they died and left kinfolks too poor to do so decently.

They met in a grove near the Arbly River, a mile or more from the city, at the homestead of a noted rebel who had run away, and was then, probably, doing his best to kill and maim our patriots in arms in order that slavery might endure from generation to generation. The colored children, seeing these things, often sing, with great glee;

“De massa run, ha! ha!

De darkey stay, ho! ho!

It must be now dat de kingdom am a comin’,

And de year ob jubilo!”

There were fine old trees in the grove and they were heavily draped. “Draped!” Yes, draped with moss. This fact is one of the most noteworthy of the vegetable kingdom in the South. A sort of gray moss, which somewhat resembles heavy masses of cobwebs, grows on the branches of the trees here. It looks as if it were flung over them carelessly, and it has a very picturesque, but sombre appearance. In the church-yards it seems appropriate and in place.

Under the draped trees the children were dancing. They were of all shades of color. Some were as black as coal; others were brown; others were of a bronze shade; others were as fair and white as you or I. In the schools here you see little children with light blue eyes, silken hair, fair, white skins and thin lips—and yet they call them “niggers,” these old slaveholders and rebels, and once they sold them, as we sell sheep or swine. They often sold their own children and grandchildren; because the mothers of these little ones were slaves. The law of the South was that the child should follow the condition of its mother. If the father was a free man (whether a white, or a black, or a brown man,) and the mother was a slave, the child was a slave; but if the mother was a free woman and the colored father was a slave, the child was free.

This was a peculiarly wicked law, because it made thousands of white and almost white children slaves,—the offspring of white fathers. But all these bad things naturally flowed from slavery, as foul water must come from a turbid fountain.

Under the moss-draped branches of the grand old trees the children danced merrily. There were thirty-five of them, to represent the States of the Union—some of them boys, some of them girls; each with a red, white and blue rosette. As “Uncle James” drove up, with his wife, they formed a circle, and we were invited to stand at the head of it. The roll of the free States (thank God, of all the States, now,) was called by a colored man who led the ceremonies, and as the name was spoken the boy or girl who represented it stepped out and made a bow, or a military salute, or a courtesy. A handsome colored girl represented our dear old Massachusetts, and every New England State had a good-looking young Carolina girl to represent it. Just think of it! Right in sight of Charleston, the great rebel city, that used to expel, and tar and feather the Yankees, as the Jews drove the prophets “out of their coasts,” and stoned them, the young children whom our brave armies freed were doing us honor, because we came from New England, and loved them; and they were bowing to us, too, on the homestead of a rich old traitor, who had fled away at the approach of our soldiers, as the “wicked flee when no man pursueth.”

After this part of the ceremony was over, the children, to the sound of fife and drum, went through various evolutions. For example, they would march round and round, and then suddenly halt, and you saw that the lines of children formed the letters:


for South Carolina; or,


for the United States; or made a large star, the emblem of the liberty which the U. S. brought to the slaves of S. C.

There was a handsome little bower, made of boughs, underneath the big tree, and now my wife and I were asked to enter it and stand on each side of the little chair inside, which was wreathed with roses and laurels, to represent a throne. I had been selected, I found, to crown the May queen. A little girl was brought forward and seated on the chair. A gold-tinsel crown, decorated with flowers and ribbons, was given me to put on her brow. She was about five years old and jet black—this first, free, colored May queen of South Carolina.

I crowned her. After the coronation there were dances. All the colored folks dance, down here—old and young. In these days, so full of hope for them—these days of their freedom from slavery—who can wonder that they dance for joy?

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