Leaving Home and Escaping the Yankees, Part 5

Eliza wrote her book in 1888, after a second marriage. But, she wrote that would never forget the events of Dec. 17, 1862. Eliza woke that day to see a fleet of gunboats in the river with transportation barges. The Federals had returned. She knew the family had to leave. She ate breakfast on the run and hastily organized their departure. A Negro, William, was sent to Baton Rouge to reconnoiter. He came back and reported 10,000 Union troops back in the city and pickets stationed all around. William said everyone inside the Yankee lines would have to “toe the mark.” Every white man who had harbored a Confederate soldier during the recent battle would be arrested.

The negro men were summoned to help load the wagons. Eliza never uses the word “slave.” She generally says Negro or rarely, “darky.” Her language was typical of her time.

Eliza wandered the rooms of the two story home, reliving ten years of warm memories. Various trunks, bags and bundles of persons who went off to war or who had evacuated were stored at the plantation. She went through all of them removing any papers that might identify the owner.

Eliza and James tried to sleep that night. Early the next morning, the head sugar-maker of a nearby planation, i.e., a slave, knocked on the door and woke James. He told James all his “niggers” went over to the Yankees. The Yankees were at his (the sugar-maker’s) plantation and they were saying they would arrest James at daylight. James left immediately and told Eliza to come find him right after breakfast. Eliza was certain that if he did not flee, then he would be arrested for sending his Negroes to Texas.

William began to suggest he was perhaps not the best person to drive a team of mules. He was clearly trying to avoid this task. That avoidance was a blow to Eliza. William had been the valet for James during his gay bachelor days. William was their confidential servant. But, she knew that after his visit to Baton Rouge, he was feeling more independent already. Eliza knew some slaves had left during the night and some others would likely soon seek their freedom, as well. Such was the master-slave relationship sat the time. On the surface, the relationship appeared close and family-like. Beneath the surface, not so much.

By noon, Eliza still could not locate a Negro who was willing to drive her and the team of mules to safety. She had approached many of the Negro men in the “Negro quarters.” Various men were making excuses. Mrs. McHatton was heart-sick. Finally, old Dave said he would drive old Sal until she balked. Eliza had few options, so she accepted his offer. As she tried various Negro men, Charlotte watched her with mournful eyes.

Old Aunt Hannah, who had been laundress for Eliza’s mother long before Eliza was born was living in her own cabin. Aunt Hannah had rheumatism and could not work. But, noted Eliza, that day she stood straight in her doorway, despite her illness, as one elevated to a new status, and waved to Eliza, saying, “Good-By, madam, I b’ar you no malice.” Eliza had never seen Aunt Hannah stand straight before. Mrs. McHatton bid good-bye to the poor, “deluded creatures.”

As Eliza returned to the main house, William warned her that a Yankee gunboat had pulled up close to the plantation. She waved bye to Charlotte, a close servant, standing next to William on the veranda of the main house. Charlotte sobbing, waved back. It was a remarkable tableau. On a plantation the residents worked, played and lived in very close proximity. Black and white, their lives were intertwined like a community. But, when it came time to go and risk Eliza’s life and the lives of two small ones, only Charlotte showed regret. The “peculiar institution” never looked more peculiar.

Eliza took one more glance at her home for the past ten years. She would embark on a difficult journey cross country to Houston, Texas in December. Even for people with resources, they suffered along the way, enduring foul weather and hunger. As they approach Houston, her baby will pass due to illness.

Eliza McHatton-Ripley, From Flag to Flag (United Kingdom: Dodo Press 2009) (reprint), pp. 28-36

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