When assets suddenly became liabilities

by | Jul 14, 2016 | News

Not quite two years after the Civil War ended, John C. Smith of Cumberland County found himself in the same predicament as other planters suddenly confronted by the prospect of having to pay the help. The land that had made his grandfather, his father and John himself well-to-do was now turning him into a beggar.

John was not without resources. The Smiths had a roof over their heads (although it had a couple of holes in it, left there by artillery rounds fired on the opening day of the Battle of Averasboro); cheap labor could be had; and John’s assets included good soil and his interests in a millpond and a ferry landing. But without slaves, few planters could afford to pay enough hands to work thousands of acres – property on which tax nevertheless had to be paid.

So John, owner of the house called Oak Grove and the land that sprawled around it, sat down and penned a letter pleading for the chance to sell part of his birthright in return for help providing college educations for two of his sons and a community school for his three daughters and their cousins.

The man to whom he directed his letter was William A. Graham, who had the unusual distinction of having been elected U.S. Senator both before and after the war, with a stint as Confederate States Senator in between. Graham now sat on the board of the Peabody Fund, established to further education in the postwar South. These excerpts from Smith’s letter (North Carolina Department of Archives and History) offer glimpses into his world both during and after the conflict.

Having been almost entirely stripped by the passing of the two armies through our country, & then having the misfortune to have the battle fought immediately over our house you can form some idea of the situation we were left in… Our dear children are around destitute of any means of gaining an education.

I have a son who is now ready for College, and another nearly ready. With what I have been able to make, & by the aid of my brother’s giving them their board I have had them at school a short time; but now my scanty means is entirely exhausted… I presume you knew Mr. Smith while at Chapel Hill… We are exceedingly anxious to dispose of some of our land in order to educate our children – for there is no means available in this part of the country… You would be amazed if you had seen their destitution immediately after the passage of the armies. It is a mystery how they even existed! – but for the Hospital which was at our house I know we should have perished…

If you can purchase some of the land we are ready to sell; if it can be done several hundred acres. I am willing to Sacrifice houses and land, but not the education of my children if it can be accomplished. I have 3 daughters whom I wish to have taught at home and there are several others in the same neighborhood who have lost as we did. If you could do any thing toward establishing a school in our midst, it would benefit us… Our country is passing through a fiery ordeal – may she be purified – God is able to bring order out of confusion. May we speedily have true peace, and become a happy united people.

A school was in fact established in Smithville, and it remained open well into the 20th century, serving uncounted white children — boys as well as girls — with surnames other than Smith. In the 1920s, a “normal school” was built less than a hundred yards away to serve the children of former slaves.

From a modern perspective John Smith’s letter, with its invocations of God, country, his brother’s UNC connection, and its assorted appeals to Graham’s sympathy, may seem like the wheedling of one spoiled member of the South’s deposed “royalty.” And most southerners of his time did have far more urgent concerns than where the next diploma was coming from. There was, however, a card that John did not play. Three years earlier, his son Robert had been mortally wounded at White’s Tavern in Virginia. That loss was one misfortune of war that he would not reduce to a sales pitch.

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