A Camp Servant at De Battle Uv De Crater

Here is a little gem that I somehow missed in my research on the battle of the Crater. I will, however, include a few stanzas in my book on camp servants and Black Confederates. What follows is a poem written by a former camp servant who was present at the Crater on July 30, 1864. It was included in a book of slave reminiscences published in 1916 by Mary Louise Gaines. The poem was written by “Old Sam” and falls neatly within a body of postwar literature that glorified the Old South and the relationship between the races at a time of intense racial violence and political realignment following Reconstruction.

Former slaves like Sam were, according to Gaines, “the product of the example and teaching of the gentle, brave, true men and women whose characters have never been excelled, and whose graces have never been equalled.”

De Battle Uv De Crater

Twuz down in Souf Ca’lina,
By de ole plantation well,
Dat ole Marster stood dat mawnin’
Wen he spoke dat las’ farewell.

His eyes wuz dim an’ misty,
An’ he nuver made no noise,
Des raise his han’ to Heahen,
Say, “Sam, tek keer o’ de boys!”

Dat’s de onliest wu’d he tole me,
Kase he knode I ‘d do my part,
But to see dem boys a-leavin’
Des broke ole Marster’s heart.

His head wuz white es cotton,
An’ his step, it monstus slow,
I feared he eud’n stan’ it—
But he tole dem boys to go.

Dey set up proud an’ han’som’
On dem hosses, whut I broke,
Dey game right den fer battle,
An’ dey nuver min’ de smoke.

‘Twuz de battle uv de Crater,
An’ l staid hack, me an’ Ben.
An’ I helt eight head o’ hosses,
Fer de Gunnel, an’ de men.

We heah’d de cannon boomin’,
An’ see de shot an’ shell.
I prayed de Lawd to lissen,
An’ keep ’em live and well.

Den de earf tor’ up so sudden
An’ I ain’ kno’ nuffin mo’,
But de hosses des a-trompin’,
Whar dar ain’ no stable flo’.

De smoke wuz liftin’ slowly,
An’ de sun a-settin’ red.

An’ all acrost de meaders,
Wuz de dyin’ an’ de dead.

I searched acrost dat meader,
An’ whar ‘twuz steep an’ hilly,
An’ down amongst de shadders,
An’ dar I foun’ Marse Billy.

His head wuz on his elbow.
An’ he look so still an’ sweet,
I say, “Good Lawd in Heaben!
De chile is fas’ asleep.

“He done wo’ out wid fightin’,
An’ he des want Sam to come
An fetch a cup o’ watah,
An’ talk ’bout goin’ home.”

An’ den I draw’d up nearder.
His han’s an’ head wuz col’,
An’ his pretty curls all bloody,
Whut Mistis said wuz gol’.

I hid him ‘neaf de pine tree,
Whar de win’ wuz sighin’ low,
An’ I clipped a curl fer Mistis
Des befo’ I let him go.

De years is passin’ slowly,
An’ I sometimes pine an’ fret.
I done got ole an’ lonesome.
But I see Marse Billy yet.

I wakes up in de moonlight.
An’ I heahs de win’ an’ noise,
An’ I heah ole Marster callin’
Say, ” Sam, tek keer o’ de boys.”

Of course, we would love to see Sam comment on the presence of a large number of black Union soldiers, which he likely observed. Perhaps he even witnessed one of the executions during or after the battle. Even more relevant to my project is the fact that Sam makes no attempt to characterize his actions as anything other than that of a servant. He did not attempt to place himself on the same level of his master by suggesting that he served as a soldier. He remained a devoted former slave.

It may be possible to track down more information about Sam given that he was present with a South Carolina unit, which bore the brunt of the initial explosion. He claims to have served two masters. This was not uncommon and may make it even easier given that the two were likely brothers.

15 comments… add one
  • Does Ms Gaines provide any evidence that “Old Sam” wrote the verse, or even existed? It’s just that it reads so much like a “negro dialect” comic or sentimental verse by white writers – who were often Northern, I believe. The written equivalent of a minstrel show.

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    • No. I never considered that as a possibility. What do the rest of you think?

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      • Kevin,

        That was the first thing I thought of myself. Around that time dialect stories were very popular in American magazines. This was about the same time as Finley Peter Dunne did “Mr. Dooley” and Ida Tarbell did her “Billy Brown” stories about a druggist who was friends with Lincoln before his presidency. I think London John hit the nail on the head.

        Best
        Rob

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      • The foreword and introduction to the book make it pretty clear to me that Gaines herself was the author, She claimed that her poems were about people she knew, but she was “a daughter of one of [Virginia’s] patrician families.”

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        • Went back and looked. Should have noticed it.

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  • From what I’ve read, the white southern diarists had writing in the slave lingo down to a science. I’ve often wondered how and why they were so adept at it. John is certainly correct that Sam could have been a figment of Ms Gaines imagination, as it seems all southerners seemed to have Dat for That down to a science.

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    • It seems all southerners seemed to have Dat for That down to a science.

      “Dialect” writing was extremely common for white southern writers to use when writing dialogue of African Americans, which they didn’t usually apply to other groups. (They don’t, for example, try to phonetically recreate other distinctive southern patterns of speech.) It’s embedded all through the transcriptions of the Slave Narratives done in the 1930s and ’40s.

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      • All good points that I am aware of, but for some reason didn’t make the connection. Perhaps even more interesting as another example of how white Southerners remembered a few decades after the war versus today.

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      • We spend an entire day in my Appalachian history class on poems and short stories written in dialect by celebrated authors from outside the region. It’s usually so thick that my students have trouble deciphering it.

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  • It seems to ring of a minstrel show a bit to me. Shockingly, I once saw a minstrel show and while my memory may be flawed on this, I know that it was held in the little town up in the Thumb where I was living for most of my life (my folks fled Detroit, that’s the shameful truth) and I believe it may have been part of the centennial of the town that took place the year we moved there. I was around 8 and this town was lily white and cast members were in blackface. My father, a big “Amos and Andy” fan, gleefully participated in some fashion, not in the cast, but probably as a dialogue coach. I have to note he worked very hard to ditch his southern accent and I was always mortified when we went to TN for a visit and he went back to being native.

    It wasn’t until years later that I learned that this was a thing and it had been acceptable until it wasn’t. I do recall only seeing a bit of said minstrel show. I do remember that there was a big crowd of paying customers and it’s something I don’t remember with fondness. What were they thinking?

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  • As others have said, it does have the sound of fabrication.

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  • Thanks Andy. What you say makes perfect sense. It’s been amazing to me that in every diary I’ve read, when the author decides, they can drop into writing in the slave dialect in a instant. It all seems to be in the exact same manner, and some of them are writing in tents while in camp!

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  • “it’s something I don’t remember with fondness. What were they thinking?”

    I hate to think that I can remember colored and white restrooms and water fountains. We’ve come a long way in 60 years, and it’s mind boggling to me that we still have so far to go. Certain elements in this country just can’t seem to get over themselves.

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    • I have to also relay the story that within less than an hour’s drive and within the county I eventually ended up working in, as a DSS caseworker, was a resort area, such as it was, that was the result of a white businessman getting payback for not getting a liquor license for a bar near a lake in this area. (Shay Lake, should anyone want to Google it) I heard this story from the time we moved into the Thumb and we took visitors for rides up there–also to the livestock market auction on Mondays, we were total hicks. This gentleman was not happy at all and told the liquor board that he would have the place run over by blacks, or words to that effect. Now, this was no ghetto and many noted entertainers passed through, although there was another black resort further north that was better known and has fallen on hard times. This place is still there as far as I know and was frequented by all races because of a topless bar that was there for a time. I guess the original founder got his liquor in, after all. This was a mainly white area, except for this part of the county and a small settlement in a nearby town. I might agree that we have come a long way, but it seems to me of late that we have gone quite a bit backwards. My aunt and cousin had friends in Shay Lake (my aunt worked for Michigan Bell in Detroit) and went there often. Now they speak of it and the people who live there like people in the deep south and that’s how they talk about Detroit.

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  • As a child of the Internet, my first inkling was “FAKE!!!”

    But when you think about it, that really doesn’t matter much. Regardless of who wrote the verse, it still doesn’t mention Black Confederate soldiers. It’s still evidence that blacks were relegated to the role of “camp servant” (ie, slave) and nothing more.

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