Thursday, May 5, 2016

Edwin Forbes on "Slave Cabins"

Yesterday I posted about Civil War artist Edwin Forbes's impressions of slaves and the different ways they assisted Union soldiers. Later, in that same account, Forbes gave some descriptions of slave cabins that he encountered while following the army. Most of the artist's time was spent covering the Virginia campaigns.

"The cabins were invariably built of logs, general squared and jointed at the corners; the peaked roof was roughly singled, and the chimney was built outside the house, at the end. It was sometimes built of stone, but oftener of sticks, crossed at right angles and heavily plastered with clay. Still another variety was sometimes seen, which was made of but two walls of logs. The inner ends were fastened to the house, and the others met at a point, thus giving a triangular form and affording opportunity for a very wide fire-place.

Sometimes a cabin would be seen with two or three chimneys. This at first mystified me, but on inquiry I found that when one chimney "burned out" another one was built, the first serving no other purpose than to add variety to the cabin. In many instances I noticed a rough ladder which led from the ground to the peak of the roof near the chimney; and occasionally there were two, one on each side. No amount of conjecture satisfied me as to their use, and I one day questioned an old negro about it. 'Laws massa,' he answered, 'dem ladders is to put de chimley out.' 'Out?' I said, 'why is is out - outside.' 'Laws! I mean dey is to put de chimley out when it cotches fire - 'n' dat's berry off'n. Yer see we takes up a pail o' water and po's [pours] it down to stop de blaze. We couldn't git 'long 'out dem ladders, no how.'

Many of the cabins were overgrown with honeysuckle, the beautiful trumpet creeper and other vines indigenous to Southern climates, and often an arbor was built in front of the door, under which the pickaninnies could romp or take shelter on rude benches. Water buckets stood outside the wall, and hanging from a nail over them were gourd dippers with which to drink. A rude square table was usually seen in front, on which 'aunty' ironed and performed other household work. Near the outside corner of the cabin generally stood a wooden vessel, of bowl like structure, though with tapering top, used for making of lye for the manufacture of soap. Old iron pots lay carelessly about, and numberless ducks and chickens gave animation to the picture.

The interior of these cabins, however, seldom ever bore out the promise of the outside view. Many of them were divided into two rooms, while others had but one, which served the purpose of sleeping, cooking and eating. The furniture was rude and scanty, consisting only of one or two benches, an old arm chair and a bed. A spinning-wheel and loom often found places in the corner, and when 'homespun' was being woven, the scene was always an interesting one. The large-fire place was set at the end of the house, furnished with andirons and a crane with chain attachment, on which a cooking-pot usually emitted a thin curl of place blue smoke, which lazily made its way up the ample chimney. The though of ornamenting the walls evidently did not occur to the simple negroes; but, had they desired it, the smoked surface would not have admitted of embellishment. Overhead was an attic, where sweet corn, pumpkins and other supplies were stored for winter use."

Similar to yesterday's quote, this selection from Forbes contain racist elements. It is probably not so surprising due to its 1890s publication. However, Forbes's insights, even remembered thirty years after the fact, give us yet another account of the slaves' daily environment.

Forbes image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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