Child’s Play is Not Child’s Play on a Civil War Era Plantation

“But seriously Topsy… did you have to go there?”
Source: Image of Miss Ophelia and Topsy from Selection from Uncle Tom’s Cabin: A Digital Critical Edition: “Topsy”: Houghton, Osgood & Co. “New Edition,” 1879

Sometimes a game is not a game. Susan Snow, a former enslaved woman, learned this the hard way during the Civil War.

Snow was one of many former slaves who was interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Depression-era Work Projects Administration. During her interview with a Project writer, she recalled an incident from the War, when she was in her early teens:

I was born in Wilcox County, Alabama, in 1850. W.J. Snow was my old marster. He bought my ma from a man named Jerry Casey. Venus was her name, but dey mos’ly called her ‘Venie.’

“I got more whuppin’s dan any other Nigger on de place, ’cause I was mean like my mammy. Always a-fightin’ an’ scratchin’ wid white an’ black. I was so bad Marster made me go look at de Niggers dey hung to see what dey done to a Nigger dat harm a white man.

“I’s gwine tell dis story on myse’f. De white chillun was a-singin’ dis song:

‘Jeff Davis, long an’ slim,
Whupped old Abe wid a hick’ry limb.

Jeff Davis is a wise man, Lincoln is a fool,
Jeff Davis rides a gray, an’ Lincoln rides a mule.’

I was mad anyway, so I hopped up an’ sung dis one:

‘Old Gen’l Pope had a shot gun,
Filled it full o’ gum,
Killed ’em as dey come.

Called a Union band,
Make de Rebels un’erstan’
To leave de lan’,
Submit to Abraham.’

“Old Mis’ was a-standin’ right b’hin’ me. She grabbed up de broom an’ laid it on me. She made me submit. I caught de feathers, don’t you forgit it.

“I didn’ know it was wrong. I’d hear’d de Niggers sing it an’ I didn’ know dey was a-singin’ in dey sleeves. I didn’ know nothin’ ’bout Abe Lincoln, but I hear’d he was a-tryin’ to free de Niggers an’ my mammy say she want to be free.

The “Jeff Davis” in Snow’s song is Jefferson Davis, who was the president of the Confederate States. The ‘Pope’ in her song is probably John Pope, a Union general who served along the Mississippi River during the early part of the War. The term “singing in their sleeves” was probably a slang term for “this is something we don’t say in front of white folks.”

From that short passage, I gathered the following about Snow and her life on her plantation:
o Susan Snow was the subject of constant beating/physical abuse
o Slavery as practiced on her plantation employed such violence to control enslaved men, women, and children.
o White children and enslaved children engaged in play that referenced the war
o Snow and other slave children had some knowledge and understanding of the Civil War, including the names of a few political and military leaders
o Young slaves, such as Susan Snow at the time, did not have the fullest understanding of what the war was about or what it meant for them
o The slaves (except for Susan Snow, much to her misfortune) knew that they should keep quiet when speaking favorably about the Union or the Yankees – lest it result in physical reprisal or other actions
o Snow’s mother, at least, believed the war would bring freedom to the slaves.

That’s a lot of information in one small passage of text.

When Snow told her story, she was 87. But her memory of that incident was strong, perhaps because of the unexpected and harsh licking she got. Snow might not have understood that Confederates were very sensitive to any talk from their slaves which seemed to favor the Union. Or that making fun of the Confederacy was no laughing matter to white southerners in any event. Snow learned her lesson the hard way.

Snow’s full interview is included in the Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves.


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