Documents on the Slaves’ Civil War: “Secret and Widespread Organization” among the Enslaved

[The following is an excerpt from Life in Dixie’s Land: Or, South in Secession Time, a memoir penned by James Roberts Gilmore, who wrote under the pseudonym Edmund Kirke. The conversation which he claims to have had with two slaves near Georgetown, SC in the immediate runup to the outbreak of the Civil War is rendered by him ‘in dialect’–a form of representation commonly used by whites, and one that almost always reinforced denigrating stereotypes about black intelligence. Here, however, Kirke combines an exaggerated dialect with a sympathetic assessment of the slaves’ alertness to the issues coming to head in the impending war. As with all the documents included in the After Slavery website, we have chosen not to edit out racist and denigrating terms (eg ‘darkies’, ‘nigger’) that were commonly used by whites at the time, but to retain the language of the original: obviously this should not be read as an endorsement of such language.

The setting in which the conversation takes place is as follows: Kirke is being transported by wagon into the SC interior by the driver ‘Scipio’, a slave on the plantation where Kirke spent the previous night; on the road, they meet up by chance with another slave teamster, Jim. Kirke’s reconstruction of the conversation that ensues offers a rare  glimpse into the seriousness with which the slaves approach the new possibilities being opened up by the war. While it is difficult to verify his conclusion that a “secret and widespread organization” existed among slaves in the South Carolina lowcountry, his observations render that conclusion plausible.]

Negro Teamsters
Black Teamsters Working for the Union Army

…. “Jim, this is Scip,” I said, seeing the darkies took no notice of each other.

“How’d d’ye do, Scipio?” said Jim extending his hand to him. A look of singular intelligence passed over the faces of the two negroes as their hands met; it vanished in an instant, and was so slight that none but a close observer would have detected it, but some words that Scip had previously let drop had put me on the alert, and I felt sure it had a hidden significance.

[later, after Jim has departed]

“Scip, did you know Jim before?” I asked.

“Hab seed him afore, massa, but neber know’d him.”

“How is it that you have lived in Georgetown five years, and have not known him?”

“I cud hab know’d him, massa, good many time, ef I’d liked, but darkies hab to be careful.”

“Careful of what?”

“Careful ob who dey knows; good many bad niggas ‘bout.”

P’shaw, Scip, you’re ‘coming de possum;’ there (73) isn’t a better nigger than Jim in all South Carolina. I know him well.”

“…. Come, Scip, you’ve played this game long enough. Tell me, now, what that look you gave each other when you shook hands meant…. If I should guess, ‘twould be that it meant mischief.”

“It don’t mean mischief, sar,” said the darky, with a tone and air that would not have disgraced a cabinet officer; “it meant only Right and Justice.”

“It means that there is some secret understanding between you.” (74)

“I told you, massa,” he replied… “dat de blacks am all Freemasons. I gabe Jim de grip, and he know’d me…..”

“Why did he call you Scipio? I called you Scip.”

Oh! de darkies all do dat. Nobody but de white folks call me Scip. I can’t say no more, massa; I SHUD BREAK DE OATH EF I DID.”

“You have said enough to satisfy me that there is a secret league among the blacks, and that you are a leader in it….”

[Kirke’s assessment of southern slaves]: The great mass of them are but a little above the brutes in their habits and instincts; but a large body are fully on a par, except in mere book-education, with their white masters.

From this conversation, together with others…I became acquainted with the fact, that there exists among the blacks a secret and wide-spread organization of a Masonic character, having its grip, pass-word, and oath [with] various grades of leaders, who are competent and earnest men, and its ultimate object is FREEDOM. (75)

The knowledge of the real state of political affairs which the negroes have acquired through this organization is astonishingly accurate; their leaders possess every essential of leadership—except, it may be, military skill, and they are fully able to cope with the whites.

The negro who I called Scipio, on the day before he or I knew of that event which set all South Carolina ablaze, foretold to me the breaking out of this war in Charleston harbor, and as confidently predicted that it would result in the freedom of the slaves! (77)

Kirke, Life in Dixie’s Land, 73-7

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