SUBMITTED BY: Frances Cullom Morgan (edited by Cheri Todd Molter)
Note from Frances Cullom Morgan: Cornelia Murphey Worth French was the daughter of Barzillai Gardner Worth and Mary Elizabeth Jessie Carter.
(Editor’s Note: The author of the following story, Cornelia M. Worth French, was born on February 10, 1849 and died on Sept. 21, 1931 [Source: N.C. Death Certificate]. She lived in Wilmington, North Carolina with her parents in 1860 and 1870, according to U.S. Census records. She married George R. French in 1872. Both Cornelia and George were buried at Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington, New Hanover County, North Carolina.)
The Fidelity of Lewis: A True Story
by Mrs. Cornelia Worth French
My forefathers, of sturdy New England stock, emigrated from Nantucket, Mass. to the south early in the eighteenth century. They were opposed to owning slaves, and my grandfather hired a free Negro and his family to assist with the work on his farm.
My father married the daughter of a slave owner and moved to a distant seaport town (Wilmington [North Carolina]) to live. He did a shipping and commission business, having a line of sailing craft to New York and Philadelphia. In those days the vessels were loaded and unloaded by hoisting in and out the goods with horse power, and he kept a number of them on his place in the care of the only Negro he owned, “Uncle Dock”, as we were taught to call him. Father was opposed to slavery and he came in possession of Uncle Dock in this way:
Uncle Dock belonged to a family living in the vicinity of a village (Asheboro) where Father first started out in life after his marriage. The death of the head of the family made it necessary to sell a few of the slaves for the settlement of outstanding debts against the estate, and it was Uncle Dock’s fate to be among the number. He knew my father and loved him; so when his trouble came upon him, he entreated my father to purchase him, and so save him from going way out to the far South. Father at first refused, not that he did not like Dock, but was conscientiously opposed to the institution of slavery. Finally, however, his pity for the young fellow overcame his scruples, and he bought Dock. When he moved to Wilmington, Dock came with him, and was his faithful steward until death.
It was necessary to employ servants to carry on the work in a growing family, and they were hired by the year. Among the number were two growing lads, Jim Green and Lewis Lane. Jim was a yard and stable boy, and Uncle Dock trusted him with the horses. Lewis was the dining room servant. He had a merry bright disposition. Both were true, able, and good boys. Their work on the premises made them companionable, in a way, with the young sons of the household, Willie and Joe.
Time passed, and the dark war clouds of 1860-61 assumed shape, and the boys were sixteen and eighteen years of age, and the war was upon us. They had now lived with us for several years, and were part of the family like Uncle Dock. Lewis was an especial with the children, and was very fond of my mother who had raised him from a lad and paid great attention to his moral training, as was the case with the majority of southern mistresses who realized their responsibilities in those days.
When an epidemic of yellow fever broke out in the town in 1863, Father decided it would be best to move his family to an inland town, and finally purchased a plantation fifteen miles from Fayetteville (Puppy Creek vicinity). He established us there, deeming it a safe refuge from the stormy times which he anticipated were ahead.
Lewis and Jim were hired as usual and were overjoyed to go into the country with us. Father had great confidence in Lewis, who was always installed as a protector of the household in his absence. Lewis was worthy of this trust. I never knew him to speak a disrespectful word to my mother, and he was a veritable watch-dog for the children. Whenever there was a fishing frolic at a nearby pond, Lewis headed the party to see that there were no snakes or other dangerous animals to hurt or frighten the children. He knew just where the best bait was to be had, and the still dark hole on the side of the creek where the perch would always bite. If it was berries the children wanted in mid-summer, Lewis knew where the largest bushes were in a swamp not far away, and went ahead and was the first to climb up and see there were no moccasins to frighten or bite the children. They were very fond of blueberries, therefore they had to be looked for in damp places.
The war clouds grew blacker and the end of the strife drew near. Lewis, in the meantime, had found on an adjoining plantation a girl who suited him, and there was a great interest in this love affair, and universal rejoicing when it was known that Lewis was to be married. In those days all preparations were at the home of the darky bride. We were very much excited to know what we could do for Lewis at this time. One of the especial and scarcest delicacies in those strange and awful war times was “cake”, but Mama said, “Lewis must have a cake.” So that precious sugar barrel was opened and we were allowed to get a glimpse of its fast fading sparkling sweetness, for the barrel was now very low; but the generous pounds were taken out to make that good solid pound cake of the Old South.
Lewis now spent his Saturday and Sunday afternoons on the neighboring plantation, and yet his duties were faithfully performed; and Jim began to take up certain lines of work in the yard, which brought him more in touch with the immediate family. One thing he had in charge was my new pony which he taught me to ride. He took great pride in having her saddled and at post ready for me every morning when it was pleasant, going with me most of the time, keeping at a respectful distance, yet ever on the alert to care for me in case of accident or danger.
It was now the spring of 1865, and my father had been frequently to and from Wilmington to the plantation, and we knew that the end of the strife was near, as Wilmington had fallen, and Sherman, on his march to the sea, was making rapid strides through Georgia and South Carolina.
At last, one cold morning in March, while the pony stood saddled at the gate, a Confederate scout came riding rapidly down the long avenue from the main road and informed us he was being pursued by federal troops who were not a mile away. My father had come home the night before and was sitting at the breakfast table with us. The scout said, “Fly, sir, for your life, those men are Sherman’s Bummers.” There was a hurried consultation with my mother; he threw his overcoat on his arm; I took from the table a plate of bread and thrust it into his hand; there was a stifled groan, a hasty kiss, and he had mounted my pony; and the two (Confederate scout and my father) rode off, leaving us with the most agonized feelings of dread and horror. I was fourteen years old and realized something of our helplessness and danger. We all huddled together in the long dining room, and did not have to wait long until they were upon us.
Lewis was the first to rush in, saying, “Oh, Miss Mary, what will you and the children do?” She tried to quiet his excitement as best she could, and we waited to see what would come. It was a cold day on the 9th of March, and Lewis was far from well, having just gotten up from an attack of the measles which had become epidemic on the neighboring plantation. My mother had cautioned him about coming out too soon, as it was considered very serious to take cold, especially with adult patients.
When finally the soldiers came up, there was no one so excited as Lewis lest harm should come to “Miss Mary” and the children. He kept nearby as if to guard us the best he could. He was alternately questioned about buried money or treasure, but nothing could make him tell where we had two boxes of meat buried, he having helped Father to conceal it under a large barn which was some distance from the house. This had been done the week before when we heard that bands of lawless men were going through the country robbing smoke houses of meat and salt. So my father thought it best to be on the safe side and conceal a portion of what he had provided for his family and servants.
Three awful days were spent in which we neither ate nor slept, while Sherman’s army passed immediately in front of our door, and the house was filled with soldiers day and night.
Lewis was especially anxious about the younger children, the second day going among the men, getting a piece of hard tack here and there, and sharing it with them. The Bummers had robbed pantry of every edible thing the day of their arrival, so there was nothing left for the rank and file of the oncoming army had they been disposed to pillage. I could tell many a thrilling incident connected with those dreadful days, but my object is to prove the love and fidelity of the old fast fading Negro of my early recollections. That they were fond of those who owned them and those who hired them, there can be no doubt. We can testify to the trust and devotion in those bygone years.
On the evening of the third day after the troops came, and as the last division of the army was passing, several men tried to persuade Lewis to go to Fayetteville, telling him that “now he was free and could no longer stay with us.” At first he angrily refused, but he saw everything being destroyed. There was nothing left to eat. He had, only the night before, come in sorrowfully bringing to my mother and myself the ends of some ears of corn picked up where the horses were fed, and had parched them on a shovel at the fireplace for our evening meal. It grieved him sorely. He grumblingly complained that he was “sick and could eat nothing, and was sorry that he could not find anything better for Miss Mary and the baby.”
My mother, not having touched tea, coffee, or milk for three days, there was no longer nourishment for her baby.
Lewis stood around with tears in his eyes, and at last with a big gulp said, “Oh, Miss Mary, I must go with them and see if I can’t find something for you and them children, for there ain’t nothing on this plantation to eat but that under the barn, and it is on fire now, and the meat can’t be dug out for days, and what are you and the children going to do? I must go, Miss Mary, I must.” And he bade us a weeping farewell, and we all wept together over our changed and forlorn condition. (Note: The meat was cooked by the heat from the burning barn and was spoiled when finally dug up.)
He went to Fayetteville and was made to assist in repairing the road as he went. It was raining and cold. He was not strong enough from his recent illness to bear the exposure, and took cold, but he pushed on, sick as he was, and came down the Cape Fear River to our old home in Wilmington. When he reached there he told relatives of our famished circumstances, and sank down exhausted. Pneumonia developed from his exposure. He prayed them to send something to Miss Mary and the children to eat. When food was brought him, he would take the bread and say, “I wish I could give this to them children.” In delirium he would rave of our lack of food. At last the poor tired soul was at rest, and under the sides of the mattress and pillow were found bits of bread he was saving the send to “Miss Mary and the children.”
Does not this simple story tell of depths of love and fidelity in the old Negro that will never be experienced again? Lewis and his faithful service, his many thoughtful kindnesses to us, and his devotion to “Miss Mary”, is one of the choicest memories of my life.
The old time Negro is fast passing away, but he holds a place all his own in the hearts and minds of southern mothers, and many are the hallowed memories in which they have their place. Time is so changed, and we have drifted so far apart that when memory opens the door of the past, and I look back on their dusky loved faces, I wonder if I am dreaming and if they are creatures of overwrought imagination.
A word about Jim. He went with Lewis and returned to Wilmington.
After the close of the war, my father went to New York and lived four years, then returned to Wilmington. At once Jim came to be hired, and he remained his most trusted and faithful drayman for thirty years.
Uncle Dock was offered his freedom and money to go North during the war, but refused. When my father decided to go to New York, Dock insisted on going too. He made all arrangements to take the place of porter in my father’s New York office. On his way from Fayetteville, where he had been living since the war, to Wilmington, down the Cape Fear River, he in some mysterious way fell overboard from the steamboat and was drowned. He was willing to leave wife and family to follow my father and his family. It seemed a sad fate after all his life of long devotion.
I would not decry all that is honorable, faithful, and good in the new generation of Negroes, but with their superior learning and larger opportunities, they can never hold the place of trust and affection that was the heritage of their slave mothers and fathers. God bless their old faithful hearts. They have gone never to return, and soon those to whom they are now a sweet memory will go too, and who will testify to what they once were? For the generations of Negroes to come will have lost every vestige of that which so endeared them to us.
If we were the hard masters and mistresses some would like to think us, why did not these faithful servants and friends chide us with it in those dark hours? No, no. They loved us as we loved them. All those I speak of have passed into the Great Beyond and now they understand.