Plantation Life in Mississippi Before War

Note: As in many Southern writings soon after the Civil War, the history of the “Old South” which included slavery is often painted in an idyllic setting rather then a realistic portrait of that time. That is true in this portrayal we bring to you. Please realize that the latitude with which a writer has is expansive, and this author took such liberties to heart, as he readily admits below. – Dennis and Judy

Dunbar Rowland was born at Oakland, Miss., August 25, 1864. Dr. W. B. Rowland, his father, was a Virginian; his mother was Mary J. Bryan, of Tennessee. Mr. Rowland was prepared for college at Oakland Academy. He entered the A. and M. College of Mississippi, in 1882, and was graduated in 1886 with the B. S. degree. The summer after graduation he began the study of law in the office of Judge R. H. Golladay, an eminent lawyer of Coffeeville, the friend and associate of Senator Walthall. In September, 1886, he entered the Law Department of the University of Mississippi, from which institution he received the degree of LL. B., in June, 1888. In the same year he was the orator of the Alumni Association of the A. and M. College, and delivered the oration at the June celebration of the Association. After graduation Mr. Rowland opened a law office at Memphis, Tenn. Four years later he returned to Mississippi and resumed the practice of his profession at Coffeeville. As a student Mr. Rowland gave as much time to the cultivation of polemics, literature, history, and composition as his other duties would allow, thus laying the foundation for the literary and historical work that has since occupied the time he could spare from his professional duties. He is especially interested in the social, industrial and political problems that are peculiar to the South, and has done much to popularize the study of Mississippi history by his numerous interesting historical and biographical contributions which have appeared from time to time in the Memphis Commercial Appeal and in the Atlanta Constitution. The following manuscript was published in 1900 in the Mississippi Historical Society publications, vol. 3, pages 85-97.

Plantation Life in Mississippi Before War
By Dunbar Rowland

In this restless, hurrying, prosaic time the younger generation of Mississippi in their eager desire for material progress and prosperity are apt to forget the good old times before the war when our fathers lived and loved and died. If I can present a pleasing picture of plantation life in Mississippi before the war, and tell of a time that may be said to belong to memory and romance this attempt to preserve something of the manners, customs and deeds of our fathers will not be in vain.

The charms of the planter’s life have been pictured by the poets of all the ages with touches of wondrous beauty and exquisite finish. Its genial labors, its dignity, its repose and its independence have been presented to us by the greatest of earth. Some of the most beautiful illustrations in Homer are taken from the husbandman and his fertile fields. Who is more wonderfully eloquent than Hesiod when he dwells upon the charms of rural life? The sweet Bard of Mantua poured forth his latest, sweetest strains in picturing the homely joys of the farmer, of whom Goldsmith says:

His best companions, innocence and health,
And his best riches, ignorance of wealth.

The history of all the ages tells us of the wonderful influence of the planters of the world upon the character, habits and ideas of society at large. In every land and clime the tillers of God-given soil, or those whose interests lie in the lands, who are far removed from the corrupting and demoralizing influences of life in our great cities are the firm bulwarks of the State and the pillars of sound and true government. The honest farmer is never a radical. He is patient and patriotic, and only rises in his might when wrong has overleaped all barriers, when hope has gone from him, and when to endure longer would be a crime. The Romans cherished the cultivation of the soil as coming from the gods. The leaders of those grand legions whose mighty march shook the world were taken from the farms of Italy. Regulus the Consul, who preferred death to a breach of faith, left the harvest field to save his country from the conquering march of Carthage. Cincinnatus, the savior of Rome in her darkest and most trying hour, was called from the plow to support the tottering fortunes of the mistress of the world. Scipio left the fireside of a country home to stay the victorious march of Hannibal, who threatened the very existence of the eternal city. The noblest virtues of men have always been, and always will be found among those who depend upon the bounties of nature for their daily bread. Among such men and women can always be found manly independence, pure patriotism, and undying devotion to liberty and love of country, and there will be preserved throughout every vicissitude those virtues upon which all true progress must depend. It is the purpose of this paper to draw a pen picture of a phase of Southern life that gave to Mississippi and to the world a type of man who should excite the admiration and love of all succeeding generations, and if the picture appears too partial to those who cannot understand the conditions existing in Mississippi before the war, it will appeal to those who by association know and appreciate them. The object of all historical investigation should be to elicit truth, therefore facts are to be preferred to theories, sincere convictions rather than display and empty decoration. The writer has a heartfelt conviction that the chivalrous, courtly, courageous Southern gentleman of the antebellum period was the grandest embodiment of the most superb manhood that ever graced a forum or died upon a battlefield. There was a time when history was supposed to be a record of emperors and kings, and their victorious wars and conquests ; that idea may be termed the progenitor of history. The history of today is the record of the lives, trials, development, advances and progress of a people. Thoughtful men and women everywhere are beginning to see and admire the true grandeur and nobility that lies back of the history of Southern life. They feel and know the fearful problems of the past, and appreciate those of the present, and those that lie in the future. We can sympathize with our fathers in the great problems which they were called upon to face and solve. The younger generation of every section of our great Republic should know the South as it was, not as it was said to be. When our friends and brothers of the North and West come to understand the troubles and sorrows and problems of the Southern slave-holder then indeed through love and sympathy can we become a united country. Then will come the time when they can applaud us in saying

Land of the South imperial land,
How proud thy mountains rise!
How sweet thy scenes on every hand!
But not for this oh! not for these
I love thy fields to roam:
Thou hast a dearer spell for me,
Thou art my native home.

There is a true and bright side as well as one that is false and dark to every great social question, and it is admitted in the outset that it is the purpose of the writer to cast aside the evil and base, and to deal only with the good and the true as it existed in the social, moral and intellectual life of the cotton planters of Mississippi before the war. It is admitted now that the state of servitude upon which the labor system of the State rested at that time had much in it that was cruel, revolting and oppressive, and it is also true that it had far more that was humane, generous, loving and sympathetic.

From 1817 to 1861 Mississippi was a garden for the cultivation of all that was grand in oratory, true in science, sublime and beautiful in poetry and sentiment and enlightened and profound in law and statesmanship. It was a land of brave men, fair women and eloquent statesmen. The snow-white cliffs of England’s rock-bound coast tower heavenward, and with a stern moral sublimity all their own gather upon their cloud-capped summits the sun rays and reflect them back upon the dark and stagnant waters at their base converting them into a sea of molten gold. Even so Mississippi’s immortal orators and statesmen have gathered up and reflect back upon a waiting world the lore of a hundred generations that falls like a sheen of glory over the sea of human mind, lighting it up with the most brilliant coruscations. King cotton reigned supreme in Mississippi before the war. Its cultivation at that time by slave labor gave better returns than any other industry in which planters could engage. Commission merchants in New Orleans, Memphis and Mobile were eager for the business of wealthy Mississippi planters, and were always ready with money to secure it. The demand for cotton was greater than the supply and the prices paid for the precious product of the delta and hill lands of the State returned a handsome profit to the producer. To one who views the boundless Mississippi cotton plantation separate and apart from its commercial or valuable side it is full of wondrous beauty and poetry. Nothing in nature is more beautiful than were the cotton fields of the State during the picking season before the war. Imagine if you will a boundless expanse of gently undulating land clad and covered over in cotton plants of a deeper green than the white-crested emerald waves of the sea. They are tossed into waves of purple, emerald and white by the winds, and the mingling of golden sunlight presents a beautiful panorama of ever-changing colors. As you gaze on this picture of natural beauty the ear catches the sound of strange, weird, wonderful music, and you hear the negro melodies of the South in all their purity and sweetness. The dress and bearing of the ebony cotton pickers as they gather the bursting balls into long white sacks made on the plantation for the purpose is both picturesque and pleasing. The men are dressed in white domestic shirts, blue cotton trousers and wide brim wool hats. The women are clothed in cotton plaids, and their heads are gorgeous in the many colored oriental turbans that were peculiar to the Southern slave women.

The squad of cotton pickers is under the control of a trusted and faithful old slave, who has won the confidence of his “Old Marster” by long years of faithfulness. The laborers or hands are provided with large homemade white oak baskets, placed at the ends of the cotton rows, into which the cotton sacks are to be emptied when filled. The picking begins. A desire to excel gradually pervades the pickers, and it is urged on by the diplomatic flattery of the leader. As the work proceeds the peculiar melody that seems to be in every negro’s soul bursts forth, and there is an actual joy in the sound. Men and women who sing while they toil are happy. The black toilers were happy in their labor. Their humble and simple lives were free from care. All their wants were supplied, and they were contented and satisfied. The direct management of every large Mississippi plantation before the war was entrusted to an overseer. His house was built in the center of the “quarters” or homes of the plantation slaves, and it was large, comfortable and well built. The handsome home of the wealthy planter was called by the negroes “the white folks house.” The homes of the slaves were arranged on streets leading from the overseer’s house as a common center. Every house had a large front room and a small shed room. The slave family always had a garden spot given for their own use and cultivation. They were taught the pride of ownership, and many families beautified their little homes with running vines and flowers. Their food was issued to them weekly from the big “smoke house” that was always to be found on every Mississippi plantation. Their food was plain, wholesome and substantial, and consisted of bread, meat, rice, vegetables, molasses and milk. The morning call to work was made by ringing an immense bell that was placed in the overseer’s yard. The work of the day was arranged by the overseer on the night before, and each squad of laborers was placed under the control of the older and more reliable men called “drivers.” The name sounds harsh to us now, but, the drivers were selected^ for their industry and faithfulness and their treatment of their fellow slaves was just and humane. The work of the day began always with sunrise. At the noon hour the ringing of the plantation bell recalled the workers from the fields, and dinner was served to them. They were allowed two hours for rest after dinner. The day’s labor came to an end at sundown. A visit to the “quarters” after dark would prove to the most unbelieving that the slaves were happy and contented. The Southern slave was joyous and mirth-loving. His hours of idleness were devoted to the rude pleasures suited to his nature. The love of music was universal among them, the twang of the banjo and the sound of the fiddle mingled with the joyous laugh of the dancers was nightly to be heard in the quarters. The people of Mississippi inherited the slavery system from a generation of noble men and women. It came to them through inheritance, and it was confirmed and sanctioned by a constitution that they honored and loved. Under the direction and protection of the fundamental laws of their country they had invested their wealth in slaves, and they could not be expected to give up their property on a sentimental demand that came from a section of the country that knew nothing of the practical results of the system. They were deprived of their property without due process of law, and no thoughtful mind can approve it.

They knew the horrors that would result from emancipation, and they foresaw the terrible trials that such a policy would bring upon them. Their homes, firesides and their very civilization were at stake. Is it to be wondered at that they refused to engulf themselves and their posterity into a state of ruin, degradation and despair? Let me give you the testimony of one of the true and noble women of the South, Mrs. Victoria V. Clayton, the widow of Gen. Henry D. Clayton, of the Confederate army, and author of “White and Black Under the Old Regime/’ as to the view taken of slavery in the South before the war. I take great pleasure in acknowledging many valuable suggestions from that simple, pure and true narrative. Mrs. Clayton says; “We regarded slavery in a patriarchal sense. We were all one family, and as master and mistress, heads of this family, we were responsible to the God we worshiped for these creatures to a great extent, and we felt our responsibility and cared for their souls and bodies. As to their religious training, every Sunday morning the mothers brought their little ones up to see me. Then I would satisfy myself as to the care they gave them, whether they had received a bath and suitable clothing for the holy day. Later the larger children presented themselves to be taught the catechism. The adults were permitted to attend the different churches in town as they pleased, but when the sun hid herself behind the western hills, all were compelled to return home to feed and care for the horses and cows. When the evening meal was over my dining room was in readiness for the reception of all the grown members of the family. They gathered there and took their respective seats. They were taught the creed of the Holy Apostolic Church, the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments ; that is, all that could be taught, for some of them could never be taught to repeat them, but understood the meaning sufficiently to lead a right life. Sometimes I read a short sermon to them. They sang hymns, and closed with prayer to our Heavenly Father.” That is a beautiful and touching recital of the relation of the master and slave as it existed in Mississippi before the war. It should silence and disarm all cruel and unjust criticism, and touch every heart with sympathy and charity for a state of life that in after years brought so much suffering and distress.

Many of the stately and beautiful plantation homes of the old Mississippi aristocracy still stand to bring forth pleasant memories of the past. They are to be seen here and there as loving reminders of all that was true, noble and gentle in the lives of their princely owners. How beautiful they seem as they stand in the solitude of a brilliant and stormy past. They were looked upon by the lordly masters of the “Old South” as blessed and favored homes in a land where intellect, wealth, happiness and good breeding reigned supreme. How stately and grand they look, massive, graceful and enduring, they seem to be grim sentinels to remind a new generation of a noble and heroic past. There is a sorrow and pathos about them that tenderly appeals to the new life and new impulses that everywhere surround them. Many of them were built long years before the war. As one of our most brilliant writers has expressed it: “They have known the fiery scourge of battle. They have been deluged with war. They have been baptized in sorrows, some of which the Northern homes have never known may never know, please God. And some of them have seen common sorrows, the anguish of bereaved motherhood, the agony of widow hood, the grief of the orphan. And the sorrow that is common makes tender the bitterness of the fierce, cruel past, and the kisses that rained on the faces of the dead turn into caresses of consolation for the living.” One of these grand old homes is beautiful, stately Anandale, the antebellum home of the Johnsons. It stands near old Livingston in Madison county, and is a proud monument of the time when it was the home of culture, refinement and wealth. Around the little village of Livingston were clustered some of the largest and wealthiest estates of that time. It was there that John Robinson lived in princely style and dispensed true loving hospitality to the beauty and culture of the State. His beautiful home was called “Cottage Place,” and it still stands as a silent, sorrowful reminder of golden days that are forever gone. It was a true, typical home of a wealthy cultured Mississippi planter, and the lavish, courtly and kindly hospitality of Mr. Robinson made it the center of a highly cultured circle of men and women. The prevailing type of the Mississippi planter in those days was proud, bighearted, broad, liberal and brave. The men of that time had and enjoyed the good things of life, their lives were worth living, and good cheer, brightness and good humor came with their coming. A fine brand of Kentucky whiskey was always on the sideboard of every gentleman’s house, and it must be admitted that it was one of his chief delights. He loved a mint julip as the gods of the Greeks are said to have loved the famous nectar of Olympus, and he looked upon those tasteless mortals who regarded it with disapproval as worse than barbarians. The Mississippi planter had the opinion that Kentucky Bourbon, with the mellowing touch of twenty years upon it, was stored up mountain sunshine to flood the soul of man with joy that no tongue could utter, no pen portray or painting picture. There is yet lingering among us the same idea entertained by our fathers. Was this love for the good things of life a weakness ? If it was the Mississippi planter was magnificent and great in every thing, great in his strength, great in his weakness. There was nothing small, cowardly or weak about him. When he joined in the morning prayers of his church, it was with a reverential, devout and penitent spirit. He looked upon every true woman of his acquaintance as a God-sent ministering angel, and no one was allowed in his presence to even intimate that a woman was not everything that was true, pure and lovely. He was the ablest expounder of a constitutional democracy, and yet he belonged to an aristocracy the most exclusive that America has ever seen. Was he a bundle of contradictions ? His character was well rounded and consistent throughout. First of all he loved his wife and children and his ancestors. His home and friends had the next place in his heart. He loved his State with an eastern devotion. That he loved his country is attested by the blood that he shed in the Land of the Montezuma’s in defense of its flag. He was much given to reading the wonderful romances of Sir Walter Scott and the pitiless poetry of Lord Byron. He had a< deep and abiding reverence for the Bible, but his knowledge of it was more theoretical than practical, and its perusal was left to his wife and children. In conducting the details of business he was not a success. He took a small part in the actual management of his farming operations. He was generally lord of all he surveyed as he stood and gazed on his beautiful cotton fields whitening in the morning light. He lived near to nature and his soul was in harmony with the peaceful rest and joy of a God-favored land. He associated labor and slavery together, hence he looked upon physical toil as a degradation and beneath the dignity of a gentleman. He modeled his life after that of the Virginia planter of the old school, and religiously followed the teachings of the old feudal aristocracy of England.

In the Mississippi cotton planter the honor and simplicity of the plowman was combined with the grace, culture “and accomplishments of the scholar. The pleasures of the library were shared by every member of his household. A taste for reading, research and original thought was instilled into the minds of the young. The father of the household was generally a university man, and his early training was supplemented by an extensive course of reading in after years. He had a passionate fondness for statecraft, oratory and politics. He knew the letters of Madison in the Federalist as few men have since known them. He delighted in the orations of Demosthenes, Cicero, Pitt, Burke, Henry and Hayne. He took his opinions of public policy from Jefferson, Jackson and Calhoun. His chosen and beloved political leaders were Jefferson Davis, Robert Toombs and Judah P. Benjamin. He looked upon Virginia as the Mahommedan looks upon Mecca, and thought that the Mother of Presidents should forever guide the destiny of his country. He was much given to political discussion; he was always right, sir, and his adversary was always wrong. What was his was the best the world afforded, what belonged to others was theirs without envy on his part. He was high strung, passionate and quick to take offense. He was a man of superb courage, unwavering integrity and unsullied honor. May the day never come when the sons and daughters of Mississippi will cease to love the memories of the superb, gallant and heroic men of a golden past. We are willing to be judged by them. Their names and fame will endure and grow brighter as the years come and go.

The Mississippi cotton planter had a genius for hospitality; his home was constantly crowded with guests, and they were made to feel that their coming was a pleasure and their departure a sorrow. The answer given to Major Welsh by Dr. Gary on being asked if he knew where a night’s lodging could be found, as given by Thomas Nelson Page in Red Rock, shows the true spirit of generous hospitality that prompted every Southern gentleman. The genial Doctor’s answer was “Why, at every house in the State, sir.” The social side of life on a Mississippi plantation was marked by gentle breeding and courtesy. The young women of the household were taught to be gracious, kind and agreeable to every one, and in their relations with young men they were guided by the strictest rules of propriety. The young men were dashing, proud and gallant, and in their relations with the gentler sex they were as chivalrous as the Knights of the Round Table.

In his love and reverence for woman the Southern gentleman has never had an equal. There was nothing heartless or hypocritical about the social life of the Mississippi planters. Every feeling expressed was genuine and heart-felt, and there was a ring of sincerity about it that attested its truth. The young women of the household were prepared for college by a governess who lived in the house and made a part of the family. The boys were prepared for some high school by a tutor, and from the high school, which was usually^ in charge of a clergy-man, they went to the university, where their fathers for a hundred years before them had gone as students. The University of Mississippi, the University of Virginia, Chapel Hill, and Yale were popular with Mississippi youth.

The coming of Christmas was the most important event of the year in a Mississippi plantation home. Arrangements and plans for entertaining were made and invitations sent out for months before the happy time. Large house parties were always features of the, holiday season. The boys and girls came home from their colleges and universities and their friends came with them. All the kinfolk from far and near were gathered together in a grand family reunion. All the aristocratic families of the neighborhood were expected to come to every scene of pleasure and merriment. The big smoke house was filled to overflowing with hams, sausages and souce meat, every turkey that could be found was pressed into service, the wine cellar was replenished, and holly and mistletoe reigned supreme. The announcement was made that every thing was in readiness for the coming guests. For weeks the lordly and hospitable planter would keep open house. The young people were told to enjoy life as only young people can. The older members of the party would indulge in outdoor sports. Every gentleman in the party, young or old, was an expert shot and superb horseman. Bird fields and deer parks were kept especially for the pleasure and amusement of guests. A grand ballroom was a common feature of the Mississippi home. Card playing was indulged in by all, and a game of whist was always called for in the evening after supper. Gen. Withers and Senator Lowe would challenge Col. Gage and Gov. Johnson for a grand round of that all absorbing game in the library,, while their better halves were looking after the festivities of the young people. An ebony negro boy always stood like a sentinel at the elbow of the master of the house, and frequent mint julips and egg-nogs were conveyed to the whist players by the said ebony sentinel. The young people played those delightful games of the old Christmas time, danced the lancers, minuette, quadrille and Virginia reel in the evening,’ and during the day flirted, made love and broke hearts in a fashion that has always been common to Mississippi girls.

Thus passed the delightful visit, joy and happiness beamed from every eye, love filled every heart, and good will and friendliness was in the very air.

It is impossible to picture in words the wife and mother of a Mississippi plantation home. Nothing that has been said or written of her has done justice to the subject, nothing that will be written in the future can truly tell of the grandest, noblest and best type of woman that ever brought joy and happiness to the world. Could the feelings of the heart be expressed then indeed might a fitting tribute be paid to the gentle, loveable, heroic Southern matron of the long ago. Descended from a long line of distinguished ancestry, she was truly noble, pure and beautiful. In the days of peace, plenty and happiness she made her beautiful home a haven of rest and a joy forever. When the days of trial, danger and privation came she met them with more than Spartan fortitude, no sacrifice was too great, no danger too terrible, no loss too bitter for her to bear for the sake of home and native land. In our mad rush to acquire the physical comforts and pleasures of life we are apt to lose sight of the gentle forces that in the past have done so much for the moral and intellectual improvement of the world. The fiery ambition of Alexander the Great was nurtured and kept alive by the grand genius of Aristotle. Napoleon was a disciple of Rousseau, and his meteoric career was but the growth of the precepts of that great Frenchman. William Pitt gained his inspiration and power from William Shakespeare, the poor and lowly peasant. The moral regeneration of the world was set in motion by Jesus of Nazareth, the divine Galilean peasant boy. The movement that resulted in the reformation of the Christian religion originated in the mind of Martin Luther, a poor, despised imprisoned monk. The spark that lit the fires of liberty and freedom throughout the world was applied by Patrick Henry, a rough, awkward Virginia backwoodsman. The grandest philanthropic work ever built up for fallen humanity was begun by Florence Nightingale, a poor, weak woman. The most heroic struggle that was ever waged by a liberty-loving people was sustained and strengthened by the undying devotion of Southern wives, mothers and sisters. History tells us that the women of ancient Carthage gave up their beautiful hair that their archers might speed their arrows against the victorious legions of Rome as they stormed the gates of the doomed city. The Southern mother saw the beautiful hill tops of her country whitened with the bones of her dauntless sons. She heard the voice of lamentation in every home. The wailings of widows was ever sounding in her ears. Did she falter or despair? When strong men filled heroes graves she gave with breaking heart and streaming eyes the manly young son, yet in his ‘teens to take his place in the ranks of those who knew how brave men die. Of all the characters that history has preserved for the love of succeeding generations the Southern mother should be enshrined in fame’s proudest niche. She needs no glittering shaft reflecting the sun’s rays to keep alive her memory in the hearts of her descendants. She needs no mighty mausoleum to commemorate her gentleness and nobility. She needs no golden words cut in lasting marble or written on enduring parchment to recite her deeds. Her name is forever enshrined in the hearts of every man and woman, every boy and girl whose heart responds to what is good, noble and true in human life. The wonderful progress that the “New Mississippi” is making in material prosperity is worthy of all praise, but there is nothing which can possibly occur in the coming years which can dim the luster, or lessen the splendor, or obscure the glory of our beloved State in its chivalric and heroic age.

That was a time which no future generation can revive because the conditions that brought into being that glorious era and made the people of Mississippi what they were can never come again. The grand and noble men and women of the “Old South” are rapidly passing away. Their memories, deeds and virtues must be preserved by their sons and daughters. They must be preserved on the living pages of history as a priceless heritage to their descendants. They must be preserved in story, poetry and song, in sculptured marble, and in the glorious beauty of painted canvas so that they will endure forever and forever.

Back to: Mississippi History

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest

Scroll to Top