Last year at the University of South Carolina I digitized the journal of a South Carolina woman and plantation owner named Keziah Brevard. She documented her life right at the beginning of the Civil War. Her biography, which is based on the journal, is available for checkout at the Wilson County Public Library under the title A Plantation Mistress on the Eve of the Civil War and It is a compelling read.
As a young boy, sparked by stories by my grandparents, I became fascinated with this time period. It seemed pretty cool to an impressionable young mind with its world of infinite battles, brave soldiers, dashing officers and some of the best facial hair ever to grace humanity. However, Keziah Brevard’s journal really and truly paints a picture of what the war was about. She time and again speaks of the war about to break out over slavery in her deeply religious, forlorn way. She speaks from a truly unique vantage point, one that shatters the monolithic image of idle slaver owners sitting in their mansion courting and fawning. This woman performed backbreaking work right beside her slaves. Keziah was a childless widow that lived by herself on a plantation with maybe 200 enslaved Africans. You wonder from her writings whether she owns them or they own her. One family seems to have made themselves in charge of the other slaves and frequent violence occurs that she can’t control. Also, from her writings you get the feeling that she knows that this is a pathological way of doing things, and she repeatedly laments about having slaves. She resents them and they resent her. That doesn’t mean that she wants to free them nor does she want some northern army of abolitionists to come and emancipate them. This woman is hard as nails and probably manic depressive, which she fights by working her fingers to the bone, lamenting to God constantly, and writing in her journal about her daily toils or lists about eggs, hams, and turkeys. Only rarely is there any crack in this dark veneer. In one entry she admits to allowing a young slave girl name Sylvia to sleep in her bed on cold nights because the girl is so afraid of the cold. But is she being kind or is she just desperate to be close to another person in a world where she is surrounded by people but yet is so completely alone? The manuscript is a rich trove of life during this period, one that shows the lives of of African Americans that is usually absent from the record. It also reveals the world of slavery as not just a monolithic gang labor system but varied throughout South Carolina each with it own unique pathologies.
Keziah ends her journal with the start of the shelling of Fort Sumter and thus the beginning of a war that she thought was foolhardy, but it leaves me wishing that there was more.