The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Elizabeth F. Ellet/Mary Slocumb

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It was about ten o’clock on a beautiful spring morning, that a splendidly-dressed officer, accompanied by two aids, and followed at a short distance by a guard of some twenty troopers, dashed up to the piazza in front of the ancient-looking mansion. Mrs. Slocumb was sitting there, with her child and a near relative, a young lady, who afterwards became the wife of Major Williams. A few house servants were also on the piazza.

The officer raised his cap, and bowing to his horse’s neck, addressed the lady, with the question—

“Have I the pleasure of seeing the mistress of this house and plantation!”

“It belongs to my husband.”

“Is he at home?”

“He is not.”

“Is he a rebel?”

“No, sir. He is in the army of his country, and fighting against our invaders; therefore not a rebel.”

It is not a little singular, that although the people of that day gloried in their rebellion, they always took offence at being called rebels.

“I fear, madam,” said the officer, “we differ in opinion. A friend to his country will be the friend of the king, our master.”

“Slaves only acknowledge a master in this country,” replied the lady.

A deep flush crossed the florid cheeks of Tarleton, for he was the speaker; and turning to one of his aids, he ordered him to pitch the tents and form the encampment in the orchard and field on their right. To the other aid his orders were to detach a quarter guard and station piquets on each road. Then bowing very low, he added: “Madam, the service of his Majesty requires the temporary occupation of your property; and if it would not be too great an inconvenience, I will take up my quarters in your house.”

The tone admitted no controversy. Mrs. Slocumb answered: “My family consists of only myself, my sister and child, and a few negroes. We are your prisoners.”

While the men were busied, different officers came up at intervals, making their reports and receiving orders. Among others, a tory captain, whom Mrs. Slocumb immediately recognised—for before joining the royal army, he had lived fifteen or twenty miles below—received orders in her hearing to take his troop and scour the country for two or three miles round.

In an hour everything was quiet, and the plantation presented the romantic spectacle of a regular encampment of some ten or eleven hundred of the choicest cavalry of the British monarch.

Mrs. Slocumb now addressed herself to the duty of preparing for her uninvited guests. The dinner set before the king’s officers was, in her own words to her friend, “as good a dinner as you have now before you, and of much the same materials.” A description of what then constituted a good dinner in that region may not be inappropriate. “The first dish was, of course, the boiled ham, flanked with the plate of greens. Opposite was the turkey, supported by the laughing baked sweet potatoes; a plate of boiled beef, another of sausages, and a third with a pair of baked fowls, formed a line across the centre of the table; half a dozen dishes of different pickles, stewed fruit, and other condiments, filled up the interstices of the board.” The dessert, too, was abundant and various. Such a dinner, it may well be supposed, met the particular approbation of the royal officers, especially as the fashion of that day introduced stimulating drinks to the table, and the peach brandy, prepared under Lieutenant Slocumb’s own supervision, was of the most excellent sort. It received the unqualified praise of the party; and its merits were freely discussed. A Scotch officer, praising it by the name of whiskey, protested that he had never drunk as good out of Scotland. An officer speaking with a slight brogue, insisted it was not whiskey, and that no Scotch drink ever equalled it. “To my mind,” said he, “it tastes as yonder orchard smells.”

“Allow me, madam,” said Colonel Tarleton, “to inquire where the spirits we are drinking is procured.”

“From the orchard where your tents stand,” answered Mrs. Slocumb.

“Colonel,” said the Irish captain, “when we conquer this country, is it not to be divided out among us?”

“The officers of this army,” replied the colonel, “will undoubtedly receive large possessions of the conquered American provinces.”

Mrs. Slocumb here interposed. “Allow me to observe and prophesy,” said she, “the only land in these United States which will ever remain in possession of a British officer, will measure but six feet by two.”

“Excuse me, madam,” remarked Tarleton. “For your sake I regret to say—this beautiful plantation will be the ducal seat of some of us.”

“Don’t trouble yourself about me,” retorted the spirited lady. “My husband is not a man who would allow a duke, or even a king, to have a quiet seat upon his ground.”

At this point the conversation was interrupted by rapid volleys of fire-arms, appearing to proceed from the wood a short distance to the eastward. One of the aids pronounced it some straggling scout, running from the picket-guard; but the experience of Colonel Tarleton could not be easily deceived.

“There are rifles and muskets,” said he, “as well as pistols; and too many to pass unnoticed. Order boots and saddles, and you, captain, take your troop in the direction of the firing.”

The officer rushed out to execute his orders, while the colonel walked into the piazza, whither he was immediately followed by the anxious ladies. Mrs. Slocumb’s agitation and alarm may be imagined; for she guessed but too well the cause of the interruption. On the first arrival of the officers she had been importuned, even with harsh threats—not, however, by Tarleton—to tell where her husband, when absent on duty, was likely to be found; but after her repeated and peremptory refusals, had escaped further molestation on the subject. She feared now that he had returned unexpectedly, and might fall into the enemy’s hands before he was aware of their presence.

Her sole hope was in a precaution she had adopted soon after the coming of her unwelcome guests. Having heard Tarleton give the order to the tory captain as before mentioned, to patrol the country, she immediately sent for an old negro, and gave him directions to take a bag of corn to the mill, about four miles distant, on the road she knew her husband must travel if he returned that day. “Big George” was instructed to warn his master of the danger of approaching his home. With the indolence and curiosity natural to his race, however, the old fellow remained loitering about the premises, and was at this time lurking under the hedge-row, admiring the red coats, dashing plumes, and shining helmets of the British troopers.

The colonel and the ladies continued on the look-out from the piazza. “May I be allowed, madam,” at length said Tarleton, “without offence, to inquire if any part of Washington’s army is in this neighbourhood?”

“I presume it is known to you,” replied Mrs. Slocumb, “that the Marquis and Greene are in this State. And you would not of course,” she added, after a slight pause, “be surprised at a call from Lee, or your old friend Colonel Washington, who, although a perfect gentleman, it is said shook your hand (pointing to the scar left by Washington’s sabre) very rudely, when you last met.”

This spirited answer inspired Tarleton with apprehensions that the skirmish in the woods was only the prelude to a concerted attack on his camp. His only reply was a loud order to form the troops on the right; and springing on his charger, he dashed down the avenue a few hundred feet, to a breach in the hedge-row, leaped the fence, and in a moment was at the head of his regiment, which was already in line.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Slocumb, with John Howell, a private in his band, Henry Williams, and the brother of Mrs. Slocumb, Charles Hooks, a boy of about thirteen years of age, was leading a hot pursuit of the tory captain who had been sent to reconnoitre the country, and some of his routed troop. These were first discerned in the open grounds east and north-east of the plantation, closely pursued by a body of American mounted militia; while a running fight was kept up with different weapons, in which four or five broadswords gleamed conspicuous. The foremost of the pursuing party appeared too busy with the tories to see anything else; and they entered the avenue at the same moment with the party pursued. With what horror and consternation did Mrs. Slocumb recognise her husband, her brother, and two of her neighbours, in chase of the tory captain and four of his band, already half-way down the avenue, and unconscious that they were rushing into the enemy’s midst!

About the middle of the avenue one of the tories fell; and the course of the brave and imprudent young officers was suddenly arrested by “Big George,” who sprang directly in front of their horses, crying, “Hold on, massa! de debbil here! Look yon!”[1] A glance to the left showed the young men their danger: they were within pistol shot of a thousand men drawn up in order of battle. Wheeling their horses, they discovered a troop already leaping the fence into the avenue in their rear. Quick as thought they again wheeled their horses, and dashed down the avenue directly towards the house, where stood the quarter-guard to receive them. On reaching the garden fence—a rude structure formed of a kind of lath, and called a wattled fence—they leaped that and the next, amid a shower of balls from the guard, cleared the canal at one tremendous leap, and scouring across the open field to the north-west, were in the shelter of the wood before their pursuers could clear the fences of the enclosure. The whole ground of this adventure may be seen as the traveller passes over the Wilmington railroad, a mile and a half south of Dudley depôt.

A platoon had commenced the pursuit; but the trumpets sounded the recall before the flying Americans had crossed the canal. The presence of mind and lofty language of the heroic wife, had convinced the British colonel that the daring men who so fearlessly dashed into his camp were supported by a formidable force at hand. Had the truth been known, and the fugitives pursued, nothing could have prevented the destruction not only of the four who fled, but of the rest of the company on the east side of the plantation.

Tarleton had ridden back to the front of the house, where he remained eagerly looking after the fugitives till they disappeared in the wood. He called for the tory captain, who presently came forward, questioned him about the attack in the woods, asked the names of the American officers, and dismissed him to have his wounds dressed, and see after his men. The last part of the order was needless; for nearly one-half of his troop had fallen. The ground is known to this day as the Dead Men’s Field.

Another anecdote, communicated by the same friend of Mrs. Slocumb, is strikingly illustrative of her resolution and strength of will. The occurrence took place at a time when the whole country was roused by the march of the British and loyalists from the Cape Fear country, to join the royal standard at Wilmington. The veteran Donald McDonald issued his proclamation at Cross Creek, in February, 1776, and having assembled his Highlanders, marched across rivers and through forests, in haste to join Governor Martin and Sir Henry Clinton, who were already at Cape Fear. But while he had eluded the pursuit of Moore, the patriots of Newbern and Wilmington Districts were not idle. It was a time of noble enterprise, and gloriously did leaders and people come forward to meet the emergency. The gallant Richard Caswell called his neighbours hastily together; and they came at his call as readily as the clans of the Scotch mountains mustered at the signal of the burning cross. The whole country rose in mass; scarce a man able to walk was left in the Neuse region. The united regiments of Colonels Lillington and Caswell encountered McDonald at Moore’s Creek;[2] where, on the twenty-seventh, was fought one of the bloodiest battles of the Revolution. Colonel Slocumb’s recollections of this bravely-contested field were too vivid to be dimmed by the lapse of years. He was accustomed to dwell but lightly on the gallant part borne by himself in that memorable action; but he gave abundant praise to his associates; and well did they deserve the tribute. “And,” he would say—“my wife was there!” She was indeed; but the story is best told in her own words:

“The men all left on Sunday morning. More than eighty went from this house with my husband; I looked at them well, and I could see that every man had mischief in him. I know a coward as soon as I set my eyes upon him. The tories more than once tried to frighten me, but they always showed coward at the bare insinuation that our troops were about.

“Well, they got off in high spirits; every man stepping high and light. And I slept soundly and quietly that night, and worked hard all the next day; but I kept thinking where they had got to—how far; where and how many of the regulars and tories they would meet; and I could not keep myself from the study. I went to bed at the usual time, but still continued to study. As I lay—whether waking or sleeping I know not—I had a dream; yet it was not all a dream. (She used the words, unconsciously, of the poet who was not then in being.) I saw distinctly a body wrapped in my husband’s guard-cloak—bloody—dead; and others dead and wounded on the ground about him. I saw them plainly and distinctly. I uttered a cry, and sprang to my feet on the floor; and so strong was the impression on my mind, that I rushed in the direction the vision appeared, and came up against the side of the house. The fire in the room gave little light, and I gazed in every direction to catch another glimpse of the scene. I raised the light; everything was still and quiet. My child was sleeping, but my woman was awakened by my crying out or jumping on the floor. If ever I felt fear it was at that moment. Seated on the bed, I reflected a few moments—and said aloud: ‘I must go to him’. I told the woman I could not sleep, and would ride down the road. She appeared in great alarm; but I merely told her to lock the door after me, and look after the child. I went to the stable, saddled my mare—as fleet and easy a nag as ever travelled; and in one minute we were tearing down the road at full speed. The cool night seemed after a mile or two’s gallop to bring reflection with it; and I asked myself where I was going, and for what purpose. Again and again I was tempted to turn back; but I was soon ten miles from home, and my mind became stronger every mile I rode. I should find my husband dead or dying—was as firmly my presentiment and conviction as any fact of my life. When day broke, I was some thirty miles from home. I knew the general route our little army expected to take, and had followed them without hesitation. About sunrise I came upon a group of women and children, standing and sitting by the roadside, each one of them showing the same anxiety of mind I felt. Stopping a few minutes, I inquired if the battle had been fought. They knew nothing, but were assembled on the road to catch intelligence. They thought Caswell had taken the right of the Wilmington road, and gone towards the north-west (Cape Fear). Again was I skimming over the ground through a country thinly settled, and very poor and swampy; but neither my own spirits nor my beautiful nag’s failed in the least. We followed the well-marked trail of the troops.

“The sun must have been well up, say eight or nine o’clock, when I heard a sound like thunder, which I knew must be cannon. It was the first time I ever heard a cannon. I stopped still; when presently the cannon thundered again. The battle was then fighting. What a fool! my husband could not be dead last night, and the battle only fighting now! Still, as I am so near, I will go on and see how they come out. So away we went again, faster than ever; and I soon found by the noise of guns that I was near the fight. Again I stopped. I could hear muskets, I could hear rifles, and I could hear shouting. I spoke to my mare and dashed on in the direction of the firing and the shouts, now louder than ever. The blind path I had been following brought me into the Wilmington road leading to Moore’s Creek Bridge, a few hundred yards below the bridge. A few yards from the road, under a cluster of trees were lying perhaps twenty men. They were the wounded. I knew the spot; the very trees; and the position of the men I knew as if I had seen it a thousand times. I had seen it all night! I saw all at once; but in an instant my whole soul was centred in one spot; for there, wrapped in his bloody guard-cloak, was my husband’s body! How I passed the few yards from my saddle to the place I never knew. I remember uncovering his head and seeing a face clothed with gore from a dreadful wound across the temple. I put my hand on the bloody face; twas warm; and an unknown voice begged for water. A small camp-kettle was lying near, and a stream of water was close by. I brought it; poured some in his mouth; washed his face; and behold—it was Frank Cogdell. He soon revived and could speak. I was washing the wound in his head. Said he, ‘It is not that; it is that hole in my leg that is killing me.’ A puddle of blood was standing on the ground about his feet. I took his knife, cut away his trousers and stocking, and found the blood came from a shot-hole through and through the fleshy part of his leg. I looked about and could see nothing that looked as if it would do for dressing wounds but some heart-leaves. I gathered a handful and bound them tight to the holes; and the bleeding stopped. I then went to the others; and—Doctor! I dressed the wounds of many a brave fellow who did good fighting long after that day! I had not inquired for my husband; but while I was busy Caswell came up. He appeared very much surprised to see me; and was with his hat in hand about to pay some compliment: but I interrupted him by asking—‘Where is my husband?’

“‘Where he ought to be, madam; in pursuit of the enemy. But pray, said he, ‘how came you here?’

“‘Oh, I thought,’ replied I, ‘you would need nurses as well as soldiers. See! I have already dressed many of these good fellows; and here is one’—going to Frank and lifting him up with my arm under his head so that he could drink some more water—‘would have died before any of you men could have helped him.’

“‘I believe you,’ said Frank. Just then I looked up, and my husband, as bloody as a butcher, and as muddy as a ditcher,[3] stood before me.

“‘Why, Mary!’ he exclaimed, ‘What are you doing there? Hugging Frank Cogdell, the greatest reprobate in the army?’

“‘I don’t care,’ I cried. ‘Frank is a brave fellow, a good soldier, and a true friend to Congress.’

“‘True, true! every word of it!’ said Caswell. ‘You are right, madam!’ with the lowest possible bow.

“I would not tell my husband what brought me there. I was so happy; and so were all! It was a glorious victory; I came just at the height of the enjoyment. I knew my husband was surprised, but I could see he was not displeased with me. It was night again before our excitement had at all subsided. Many prisoners were brought in, and among them some very obnoxious; but the worst of the tories were not taken prisoners. They were, for the most part, left in the woods and swamps wherever they were overtaken. I begged for some of the poor prisoners, and Caswell readily told me none should be hurt but such as had been guilty of murder and house-burning. In the middle of the night I again mounted my mare and started for home. Caswell and my husband wanted me to stay till next morning and they would send a party with me; but no! I wanted to see my child, and I told them they could send no party who could keep up with me. What a happy ride I had back! and with what joy did I embrace my child as he ran to meet me!”

What fiction could be stranger than such truth! And would not a plain unvarnished narrative of the sayings and doings of the actors in Revolutionary times, unknown by name, save in the neighbourhood where they lived, and now almost forgotten even by their descendants, surpass in thrilling interest any romance ever written! In these days of railroads and steam, it can scarcely be credited that a woman actually rode alone, in the night, through a wild unsettled country, a distance—going and returning—of a hundred and twenty-five miles; and that in less than forty hours, and without any interval of rest! Yet even this fair equestrian, whose feats would astonish the modern world, admitted that one of her acquaintances was a better horsewoman than herself. This was Miss Esther Wake, the beautiful sister-in-law of Governor Tryon, after whom Wake County was named. She is said to have ridden eighty miles—the distance between Raleigh and the Governor’s head-quarters in the neighbourhood of Colonel Slocumb’s residence—to pay a visit; returning the next day. What would these women have said to the delicacy of modern refinement, fatigued with a modern drive in a close carriage, and looking out on woods and fields from the windows!

  1. Yon, for yonder.
  2. Moore’s Creek, running from north to south, empties into the South River, about twenty miles above Wilmington.
  3. It was his company that forded the creek, and penetrating the swamp, made the furious charge on the British left and rear, which decided the fate of the day.