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Friday, October 25, 2013

Story of a Trooper: Francis Colburn Adams in New Kent IV - A visit to Eltham


The continuing story of trooper Francis Colburn Adams' experiences in New Kent during the Peninsula Campaign . . .

The standard image of the house at Eltham; according to the Virginia Historical Society it is based on a drawing by a member of the family



The old Eltham mansion was a large, high, double-storied brick house, with tall chimneys at each end, aspacious hall in the centre, quaint gable windows on the steep roof, and large airy rooms, filled with substantial, but old-fashioned furniture. But little pains had beentaken to keep the building in repair, and there was adingy, antiquated air about it, inside as well as out.Several buildings used for servants' quarters, and which  bore evidence of having been spacious and comfortable,were now tumbling down in decay. A large brickbuilding, a few yards from the house, was used promiscuously for a kitchen, a chicken loft, a carriage house,and the quarters of several old and infirm negroes.But the whole more nearly resembled the shop of a blacksmith, who had taken a rag-seller and sootty cookinto partnership.

The present owner of this plantation, a rank secessionist,* whose name I have now forgotten, left for a placeof safety as we approached, leaving everything to the  care of an overseer, a swarm of sooty women and children (slaves) of all colors, and a few very old men.The able-bodied field hands, except the few he had induced to go with him, had all gone in pursuit of freedom.Those left had had it all their own way for a day or two, and the house was in nice state of confusion when we entered it. The overseer, too, was in a state of great grief at the way things were going, and wished, as he said, every hour in the day, that Mr. -— had stayed at home to look after the property. What  grieved him most was that the negroes treated his orders with contempt, and "grinned at him, and said they won't." He wanted to apply the lash, and whip them into obedience, as he had been accustomed to.

When told that if he attempted it he would find himself in the guard-house, and perhaps in irons, he thought it very hard of us to interfere in this way with his authority. This overseer was a little, lean, leathery man, with a sallow complexion, or perhaps I should say, no complexion at all, a sharp, angular visage, and a small dull eye. He wore a shabby grey coat, that reached almost to his heels, a soft hat slouched over his eyes, and seemed to be shirtless. He was a strange and quaint item of humanity, this little old man, this sovereign of the lash, who had so long controlled the affairs of the plantation. His mind seemed to be in a continual state of confusion and perplexity. He would  pace up and down in front of the old mansion, now pausing and looking with an air of wonder over the fields that were being desolated, then mutter to himself as if crazed with some new care. Then he would stand for an hour, fixed as a statue, but like a man full of sorrows, and without knowing what to do. If any one asked him a question he would answer civilly, moodily ; and he would generally end by saying, "Things have  changed so mightily since Mr. left, I don't know what's best to be done." Then he would shake his head and inquire if we intended to send them all away and sell the place. " If you do," he would add, "there'll be no more for overseers to do." The picture of this  little, moody old man, as he passed up and down before the antiquated mansion, contemplating at times the troops that had so suddenly and rudely destroyed his
fields, was one I shall not soon forget.

We took possession of the old mansion, and converted it into headquarters for Generals Franklin, Slocum, and Newton. The "young gentlemen" of the staff made themselves comfortable in the upper rooms, which were spacious and airy, and well stocked with feather beds and massive high-post bedsteads. General Franklin ordered that nothing be taken from the house, and the furniture, as far as possible, be preserved from harm. An inquisitive correspondent, however, found means of getting into the bureaus, and brought to light a number of ancient and curious documents, some of them valuable for their connection with the history of the place. There was also a considerable number of valuable old books found in one of the rooms, and which I fear were destroyed after we left.

When we arrived, the yards and gardens swarmed with pigs, turkeys, geese, and chickens, and against these an indiscriminate war was carried on until the provost marshal came up and put an end to it. The generals had gone out to examine the front and direct the disposition of troops ; and several " young gentlemen" of the staff, seeing such an excellent opportunity of replenishing their larders, set upon the astonished poultry and defenceless roasters with a fierceness and energy they had not displayed in battle. Clubs, stones, pistols, and swords were used freely, and it was, to say the least, somewhat amusing to see a race for life between the smallest kind of a porker and a brilliantly  uniformed staff officer. Another, with a taste for chicken or turkey, would draw his sword and begin the chase, not stopping until he had secured his game. The most amusing scene during this " chicken war," at Eltham, which was not waged without the loss of some blood, was enacted between a tall, gaunt, fair-haired German officer of cavalry, in spectacles, and prodigiously booted and spurred, on the one side, and a goose he wanted for dinner on the other. The goose resolved not to be captured, and made desperate use of both wings and legs, and the stalwart trooper was equally resolved not to be done out of his dinner ; so the chase was kept up for at least twenty minutes, the trooper gaining on the goose at every stride, cutting right and left with his sabre, and each time missing his aim, owing to short-sightedness. In truth, the goose was likely to get the better of the trooper, when the assistance of an Irish orderly was called in and the gobbler brought down with a stone. Other gentlemen were equally persevering in their pursuit of turkeys and chickens ; and what with the loud gabbling of geese, the squeals of pigs, the screams of chickens, the loud gobbling of turkeys, and the wild enthusiasm of little negroes, who joined in the chase, the medley of ungrateful sounds became deafening. Two splendid peacocks, alarmed at the slaughter that was going on, sought, safety on the top of the house, and remained perched on one of the tall chimneys, where we left them two days afterwards, cautiously viewing the scenes below, but exhibiting no inclination to come down for food or water.

The little old overseer was very much disturbed in his mind at seeing the ranks of his poultry thus unceremoniously thinned out, and seemed greatly relieve when the provost marshal ordered him to lock up what whatever was left, and sell them for gold, which he did finding ready customers. Now, this war on the poultry of the Eltham plantation had its serious, as well as humorous aspects, and came very near resulting in a duel between two gallant gentlemen of the staff. A question of right to a chicken arose, and resulted in a very angry dispute between Captain Walden and Lieutenant Baker. Menacing attitudes were taken, and language used not common among gentlemen. It looked, indeed, as if we should be called on to measure ground for the gentlemen, and send for surgeons, pistols being the only means left of insuring satisfaction and settling the dispute. It may disappoint the reader, however, to know that no blood was shed, and that the dispute came to an end by each striving to outdo in the use of very bad language.

A short distance in the rear of the old mansion, near the bank of the river, and shaded by some fine old trees, was an ancient cemetery, surrounded by a high brick wall, and entered through an arched gateway, with stone lintels. In the centre of this cemetery  stood a moss-covered tomb, with the slab broken in the centre, and otherwise defaced. After clearing away the moss, I succeeded in reading the following inscription on the slab:

"Here lyes Intered ye body of y Hon. William B. Bassett, Esq., and Bridget, his wife,  of the County of Southampton, in ye Kingdom of England. He married Joanna, eldest daughter of Lewis Burwell, Esq., with whom he happily lived 29 years rnd ten months, and was blessed with 5 sons and 7 daughters. He departed this life ye 11th of October, 1723, in the 53d year of his age. He was a good christian, an affectionate, obliging husband, a kind and indulgent father, and a good master. His loss was greatly lamented by his county, his country, and family, and inexpressively to his mournful, disconsolate widow, who also departed this life ye 7th day of October, 1727, in ye 53d year of her age."

There is no doubt that good Squire Bassett was a fine Virginia gentleman of the olden time; that he kept choice hounds and fleet horses; that he entertained his friends at the chase; that he had many slaves; that the lords and ladies of the land were welcome guests
at his mansion; that, in a word, he lived as a fine old gentleman ought to live, and died a good christian. But that was before the hearts and souls of Virginia gentlemen were made corrupt by the degrading business of slave-breeding. Eltham had fallen from its high estate; genius, beauty, and wealth no longer held court in its halls; its gardens were overgrown with rank weeds, and the traces of its former grandeur fast wearing out in decay; and there was proof enough that the present owner made slave-breeding Eltham's chief source of profit.

" You used to raise a good many slaves on this place, I suppose?" inquired a Union soldier, stopping and accosting the little, old overseer.
" A right smart heap," replied the man, curtly.

'' About how many ?" queried the soldier.

" Say from fifteen to twenty a yeer; prime hands; brought a right smart bit of money; wus wurth from ten to twelve hunderd a head. Niggers all runed away whin you cum'd. Aint wuth much now. Slipperyest property now a man can have." "What did you used to do with them?" continued the soldier, fixing a stare on him; " sell them in the market with your pigs ?"

" Down South," replied the man, confusedly; then turning to the soldier, with a look of sympathy, he continued, in broken sentences, " Bin a prayin' all night that the Lord would deliver us from this cuss as is cum upon us."

" Old man," replied the soldier, with a look of scorn, " better if you had prayed to the devil. God don't heed the prayers of wicked men like you."

* the "rank secessionist" was Richmond T. Lacy. Eltham had passed out of the Bassett family in the early 1850's and Lacy was now one of the largest landowners in the county. Possessing over 3700 hundred acres, Lacy owned or hired almost sixty slaves. He also had two sons in the Confederate army.

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