After New Bern we beat on ceaselessly toward the Atlantic coast, stopping two days outside Creswell, NC at the Pettigrew State Campground. Civil War General J Johnston Pettigrew is buried here. He led one of the three brigades in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, and came back horseless, but unhurt. Two weeks later he was killed in a minor skirmish during Lee’s retreat toward Richmond. Pettigrew, something of a Renaissance Man, was fluent in half a dozen languages, a lawyer, mathematician, fencing master, author, university professor, and soldier, all by the age of 35. And he owned slaves on a farm next to the park.
The prime attraction on the grounds of Pettigrew Park is Somerset Place, once owned by four generations of the Josiah Collins family spanning 1785 to 1865. Business operations ended after the Civil War and slavery’s demise. Over 300 slaves had made it work, but most of them chose to do other things, given the choice. Somerset has preserved or rebuilt to original plans most of the plantation’s buildings, and over time has collected various artifacts to furnish them. We got the sense that this was an honest glimpse into big plantation life.
The buildings survived for another seventy years, thanks to cypress log construction. Cypress rots over centuries, so the buildings unburned still stood when the Federal Farm Security Administration bought it in 1937. The property was later transferred to North Carolina, and they’ve done excellent preservation work on it. Their volunteer tour guides shed all kinds of light on ante-bellum life. A school group took the tour with us, and a young, chatty black girl noticed a chain hanging from a tree; she then asked the guide “Is that where they hung slaves?” He must have heard that one before, because he was ready. “No, slaves were never hanged. If someone was more trouble than he was worth, they’d just sell him. Then he’d lose all his family and everybody he grew up with. Punishment enough.“
All my life I thought slavery existed because nobody knew any other way. But there had been no slaves in Europe for hundreds of years. Who brought the first slave to North America? How did he get away with it? How did a society evolve where civilized people paid kidnappers for other people, and the buyers held clear title to them and their offspring in perpetuity? Should we blame it on laissez faire economics in a nation with few laws? Should we just attribute slavery to man’s unlimited capacity for cruelty? Did religion help slavers rationalize that black people are not human? That’s a lot of questions. I have no answers.
The difference in living conditions of the master’s family and the slaves were stark in terms of comfort, free time, diet quality, and privacy. But compared to 21st century life, 19th century’s richest man in a million was poor by our standards. Our Airstream has running water, a flush toilet, heat and A/C, comfortable beds, refrigerator, gas oven and range. Somerset Place had cooks, handmaids, and slave-operated chamber pots, but nothing else on our list of modern necessities. We even shower now and then!
In the Strange But True category, rich slave owners bathed with far less frequency than their slaves. Slaves cleaned up every Sunday for church; Europeans felt immersion in water was unhealthy. Two of the six Collins kids drowned canoeing a 30 foot wide transport canal along with two slave buddies because none had had been in water enough to learn to dog-paddle.
Now is way better than then.