The Buford Expedition, Part Six: The Daughters of South Carolina

Mary Chesnut

Mary Chesnut

Fleming’s paper is available here (PDF) or in Transactions of the Alabama Historical Society, Volume IV (huge PDF).

Previous Parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

We left Jefferson Buford at the Alabama legislature, where he made his pitch for Kansas emigration. A visiting Massachusetts man got word of that and went straight to Ely Thayer when he got home with the news. Buford aimed to field a proslavery regiment in Kansas, all armed and ready to fight. The Emigrant Aid Society, while it had trafficked in guns at least informally, dealt more with the money end of things. Thayer and the good, antislavery people of Worcester got together and made a start on remedying that deficit to the tune of 165 guns and fifteen thousand dollars for further emigration.

Buford had not started the fight over Kansas, but Thayer and company realized that he had taken it to a new level. His plan, like the Emigrant Aid Society’s, found supporters. If Buford couldn’t shake any money loose from the state of Alabama, he could get some from Alabamans to go with the proceeds from selling forty of his Alabaman slaves. A meeting in Columbus, Georgia, resulted in a Colonel Gayle promised his county would deliver up five thousand dollars. Gayle seems to have had plenty of cash on hand, as Fleming notes that he later offered $100,000 for the execution of Abraham Lincoln. In less conventional fundraising,

A daughter of South Carolina sent to the editor of a newspaper a gold chain which would realize enough to furnish one man, and she begged him to let the ladies of her neighborhood know when more money was needed. “We will give up our personal embellishments and expose them for sale.”

Floride Calhoun

Floride Calhoun

That makes for a cute detail, but it speaks to an important reality. Nineteenth century America permitted political action by women in only tightly constrained venues. As the mothers of future citizens, they had a legitimate place in seeking to improve the moral condition of the country. They could do that through the action of various benevolent societies. We remember mostly the suffrage, temperance, and antislavery movements but nineteenth century women also practiced politics through church groups and exerting informal influence on their male relations. The women of South Carolina might have made a sentimental gesture in selling their jewelry, and most men probably read it that way, but they also took a political stand. They too lived in the Palmetto State and understood themselves as a slaveholding people, in solidarity with the slaveholders of Missouri and imperiled by antislavery activism in all its forms.

Should things worked out as they expected and antislavery agitation inspired slaves to revolt, the murderous hordes would come for the Mary Chesnuts as much as the James Chesnuts, the Floride Calhouns along with the John C. Calhouns. We know that no massacres came, but we have the benefit of hindsight they lacked. So far as they knew, the slaves told the truth when the menfolk tortured plans to kill all the whites out of them. Denmark Vesey, at least in their minds, really wanted to go on a killing spree in Charleston before sailing off to Haiti. That whites, then and now, proved far more prone to such things didn’t enter into it.

 

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