A Clear-Eyed Look at the Old South

chicora woods

Now that a third Reconstruction is very much underway in the South, it is more needful than ever to know and understand her history and her ways of living. Thankfully, Mrs. Elizabeth Allston Pringle, a South Carolina plantation owner and rice planter (1845-1921), has left us a valuable guidebook for doing such things in her written account of her family’s life in South Carolina, Chronicles of Chicora Wood (Atlanta, Ga.: Cherokee Publishing Company, 1950 [1976 reprint]). As the plantation class was the ideal most in the Old South aspired to, the views of Mrs Pringle and her family may be taken more or less for those of Southerners as a whole at that time.

Since it is foremost on the minds of many right now in the debate over Confederate symbols, let us first mention slavery. Mrs. Pringle also brings up this subject early on in her narrative, saying,

‘Now that slavery is a thing of the past, the younger generation in our Southland really know nothing about the actual working of it, and they should know to understand and see the past in its true light. Slavery was in many ways a terrible misfortune, but we know that in the ancient world it was universal, and no doubt the great Ruler of the world, “that great First Cause, least understood,” allowed it to exist for some reason of His own.

‘The colony of North and South Carolina, then one, entreated the mother country to send no more slaves. “We want cattle, horses, sheep, swine, we don’t want Africans.” But the Africans continued to come. The Northeastern States were the first to get rid of the objectionable human property when conscientious scruples arose as to the owning of slaves — in some instances by freeing them, but in many more instances by selling them in the Southern States. There is no doubt that in the colder climate slave labor was not profitable. When the Civil War came, the Southern planters were reduced from wealth to poverty by the seizure of their property which they held under the then existing laws of the country. It is a long and tangled story — and I do not pretend to judge of its rights and wrongs. I have no doubt that the Great Father’s time for allowing slavery was at an end. I myself am truly thankful that slavery is a thing of the past, and that I did not have to take up the burden of the ownership of the one hundred people my father left me in his will (all mentioned by name), with a pretty rice-plantation called Exchange two miles north of Chicora Wood. I much prefer to have had to make my own living, as I have had to do, except for the short six years of my married life, than to have had to assume the care and responsibility of those hundred negroes, soul and body. I have had a happy life, in spite of great sorrow and continued work and strain, but I am quite sure that with my sensitive temperament and fierce Huguenot conscience I never could have had a happy life under the burden of that ownership’ (pgs. 7-8).

One will notice that the institution of slavery was no great joy to the slave owners, but rather a burden that they were glad to be rid of when the day came. There is also something else that will seem extraordinary in our day: The slave owner knew that he was responsible for not only the bodies but also for the souls of his slaves (Mrs Pringle’s Aunt Blythe said of the slave owner’s life, ‘It is the life of a missionary, really . . .’ (p. 77)). And he took great care to see that they were instructed in the Christian faith. What a difference between him and the typical corporate CEO, who treats his ‘employees’ as if they were a body only, with no soul.

For their part, the slaves were none too pleased with the new order that developed after the South was defeated by the North in the War. Mrs. Pringle writes of her mother and one of her former slaves Daddy Aleck,

‘Yesterday she called Daddy Aleck and told him she had not the money to pay his wages and he would have to find another place. He was very indignant. “Miss, I don’ want no wagis! Aint I wuk fu yu sence I bin man grown, aint my fadder wuk fu Maussa fadder! En my grandfadder de same! Aint yu feed me on de bes’! An’ clothes me in de bes’. Aint I drive yo’, de Guvna’s lady all de time Maussa bin Guv’na, en now yu tink I gwine lef yu, en lef de hosses. ‘Tis true I got but a po’ pair, jes’ wat dem Yankee lef, but I kin manige wid dem, en I wont lef dem en yu to dat triflin niggah boy, no ma’am, not Aleck Pa’ka, e aint mean enuf fu dat!”

‘It was a distressing scene. Mamma was much moved, but she was firm, and when Daddy Aleck realized that she would not be persuaded, the tears rolled down his shiny black face and I, in my corner pretending to write, ignominiously sobbed’ (pgs. 283-4).

There was much love and loyalty between blacks and whites in the South before the social engineers in Washington City came in 1865 and began implementing their utopian visions. If the outsiders would leave us alone, it may well be this way again, and this time without the troublesome institution of slavery.

The peculiar institution aside, there are other characteristic Southern features to be seen in Mrs. Pringle’s book. Christianity, for instance. Time and again it is seen in the life of the Old South: Sunday church services; daily family prayers (which included the slaves); the three-day long Christmas celebration; the reading of the Bible for Mrs. Pringle’s father as he lay in bed dying, to comfort him; the work songs of the slaves; the adoration of God for the beauty of his creation.

Closely connected with this is the appreciation of beautiful art. Again, from Mrs. Pringle:

‘My father’s love of art, and of music, and of all beauty was very great. It made all the difference in the world to us, his children, growing up in the country, so far from picture-galleries and concerts and every kind of music. At the sale of the Bonaparte collection of pictures in Baltimore my father commissioned the artist, Sully, to attend the sale and select and buy for him six pictures. Papa was much pleased with Mr. Sully’s selection. They included:

‘”A Turk’s Head,” by Rembrandt.

‘”The Supper at Emmaus,” by Gherardo del Notte.

‘”The Holy Family,” a very beautiful Gobelin tapestry. For this picture Mr. Sully was offered double the price he paid before it left the gallery.

‘”Io,” whom Juno in jealous rage had transformed into a white heifer. A very large and beautiful canvas, a landscape with the heifer ruminating in the foreground, watched by Cerberus, while on a mountain side Mercury sits playing on his flute, trying to lull him to sleep. (I still own this painting.)

‘”St. Paul on the Island of Melita,” a very large canvas representing a group of shipwrecked mariners around a fire of sticks; in the midst stands the figure of St. Paul just shaking from his finger a viper, into the fire, very dramatic.

‘”St. Peter in Prison,” awakened by the angel while his keepers sleep.

‘This is the match picture to the above and the same size.

‘These works of art on the walls of our country home awoke in us all an appreciation and recognition of fine paintings for which we can never be sufficiently grateful.

‘This great love for art and his confidence in its elevating influence is shown by his buying and having placed in the grounds of the State capitol a replica of Houdon’s statue of Washington’ (pgs. 20-2).

Also related to these latter traits is the more than utilitarian heed for the creation, that it is more than just a means to making a profit, as may be seen in these stories from Mrs. Pringle:

‘Then the family got into the rowboat and were rowed down the Pee Dee, then through Squirrel Creek, with vines tangled above them and water-lilies and flags and wild roses and scarlet lobelia all along the banks, and every now and then the hands would stop their song a moment to call out: “Missy, a alligator!” And there on the reeds and marsh in some sunny cove lay a great alligator basking in the sun, fast asleep. As soon as the sound of the oars reached him, he would plunge into the water, making great waves on which the boat rose and fell in a way suggestive of the ocean itself. The way was teeming with life; birds of every hue and note flew from tree to tree on the banks; here and there on top of a tall cypress a mother hawk could be seen sitting on her nest, looking down with anxious eye, while around, in ever-narrowing circles, flew her fierce mate, with shrill cries, threatening death to the intruder. No one who has not rowed through these creeks in the late spring or early summer can imagine the abundance and variety of life everywhere. On every log floating down the stream or lodged along the shore, on such a summer day rows of little turtles can be seen fast asleep, just as many as the log will hold, ranging from the size of a dinner-plate to a dessert-plate, only longer than they are broad — the darkies call them “cooters” (they make a most delicious soup or stew) — so many it is hard to count the number one sees in one trip. Besides all this, there is the less-pleasing sight of snakes on the banks and sometimes on the tree overhanging the water, also basking in the sun so trying to human beings at midday (pgs. 68-9).

‘ . . . One day, when my father returned from a visit to the upper part of the State, he called me and said: “My little Bessie, I have brought a pony to be all your own; his name is Rabbit and he is very gentle, so that now you need not be afraid to ride, and you can go with Adele instead of waiting until she comes home, for your ride.”

‘Of course I appeared overjoyed and thanked him with enthusiasm, but in my heart I was terribly dismayed; go to ride with Della, who went fast all the time ! No, indeed, I could not do that, but after Rabbit arrived, a little, dark-brown horse with kind eyes and slow ways, I was put on his back, weeping, every afternoon, and started off with Della; but Typee went so fast that I begged her to go on and leave Rabbit and me to our own devices, which she always did, so we ambled along comfortably, he having a very nice pace which suited me better than a canter or a gallop. Della took her long, rapid ride and, returning, picked me up, so we came home demurely together. It was supposed that I was becoming a great horsewoman, and I really was getting over my fear and ceased to weep as I was mounted. Those quiet rambles along the beautiful, smooth beach, where nothing could hurt you, — with the great, beautiful sea, rolling in with its dashing waves just beside me, but limited by its great Creator — very soon became the greatest delight and joy to me. I loved to be alone with this wonderful companion, and would ride along about a mile and then turn and come slowly back, so that Della could reach me before we got home’ (pgs. 120-1).

This view of the creation leads naturally to wholesome foodways, again quite far from the chemical soaked, genetically engineered ‘food’ raised on today’s industrial farms:

‘But milk and butter and cream were abundant, also poultry and eggs; and the Pedee furnished most delicious fish — bream and Virginia perch and trout. There were figs in abundance and also peaches, but the latter were small and a good deal troubled with cuculio. They were, however, very good stewed, and my mother made quantities of delicious preserves from them.

‘Around the house at Chicora grew luxuriant orangetrees, only the bitter-sweet; but these oranges make the nicest marmalade, so mamma put up quantities of that for winter use. Her vegetable-garden was always full of delicious things — cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant, and okra; and, as my father killed beef and mutton every week for use on the plantation, she had the very best soups and steaks; and there were always wild ducks to be had. Also, after August 1, there was venison in the house, for my father was devoted to deer-hunting. At the time the negroes understood preserving the venison in the hottest weather by exposing it to the broiling sun. I do not know what else they did, for it is now a lost art; but it was called “jerked venison” and was a delicious breakfast dish, when shaved very thin and broiled. They also preserved fish in the same way — called “corned fish” — it was a great breakfast dish broiled. Besides all this, about the end of August the rice-birds began to swarm over the rice, sucking out all the grain when in the milk stage. This necessitated the putting out of bird-minders in great numbers, who shot the little birds as they rose in clouds from the rice at the least noise. These rice-birds are the most delicious morsels; smaller than any other bird that is used for food, I think, so that a man with a good appetite can eat a dozen, and I, myself, have eaten six. When they go out at the end of harvest, another delicious little bird comes in, called locally a coot, but really the rail or soarer of Maryland. All these things made living easy and abundant, for they came in great quantities’ (pgs. 88-90).

The War, as one might expect, receives its share of attention, especially Sherman’s March. The death and maiming of family and friends; the deprivation of food and clothing (Mrs. Pringle recounts how she and her fellow classmates at the boarding school in Charleston subsisted on ‘very dry corn-dodgers’ and water for quite some time during the War (p. 178)); the vile behavior of the Yankee soldiers – their wanton killing of animals and their breaking to pieces of anything of value that could not be stolen – Mrs. Pringle recounts all this and more.

And yet with all this hardship, there is nevertheless the characteristic Southern good humor:

‘Our kind and generous neighbor, Mrs. Wm. Evans, was a very, very thin, tall woman, but when I ran over to see her during these days of anxiety and she came out into the piazza to meet me, I could not believe my eyes. She seemed to be an enormously stout woman ! I looked so startled that she said:

‘”My dear Bessie, they say these brutes take everything but what you have on and burn it before your eyes. So I have bags of supplies, rice and wheat flour and sugar and what little coffee we had, hung round my waist, and then I have on all the clothes I can possibly stand, three dresses for one item.” And then we both laughed until we nearly fell from exhaustion. And when I ran home and told mamma we had another great laugh, and oh, it was such a mercy to have a good hearty laugh in those days of gloom and anxiety’ (pgs. 224-5).

In that world, when neighbors still knew one another, before the collapse of the authority of the Western churches and the family, the rise of Leviathan government, and the atomization of men and women, the leading men in the neighborhood took care of many of the ‘social services’ now dispensed by various faceless and nameless bureaucrats. Mr Robert Allston, for example, Mrs. Pringle’s father, organized work crews to maintain the roads in his region; sought to educate the promising children of the poor farmers; and gave to the sick and needy in his family, even those quite a distance from him (like his cousin Washington Allston in New York).

All was not perfect, of course. Death and disease from the swampy climate and lack of medical knowledge were still common (though now we have gone too far in the opposite direction, so that we are ruled by a scientific, technocratic elite); sometimes the slaves grumbled over their work; and some of the farmers of the backwoods barely eeked out a living for themselves and their families.

Like the Old South whose life it tells, Mrs. Pringle’s book is not perfect, either. It wanes near the end, being mostly journal entries from a younger, more childish Elizabeth Allston Pringle. Yet throughout it burns with a light-giving fire of which most modern history books are bereft.

Mrs. Pringle opens her book by tracing the lineage of her forefathers and foremothers, the Old English Allstons and the French Petigrus and Giberts, and recounting some of the important events from their lives. Such self-sacrificing reverence for one’s ancient forebears, rather than a selfish sentimentalism for one’s nearest kin only, is also a mark distinctive of the Old South. We ought also to keep faith with our Southern ancestors in this ascetic spirit. Studying books like Mrs Pringle’s Chronicles of Chicora Wood is one way to do that.

Read this book (only a fraction of its goodness has been told here), and so honor your Southern fathers and mothers. Keep their good traditions alive, and pass them on to your children and to your children’s children, that it may go well with us in the land the Lord our God hath given us. For they were good people who built well: Their society was not perfect, but it was at least better than the money-worshipping, dehumanizing wasteland that has arisen in so much of the South since the Confederacy’s downfall.

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