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Southern Life in Southern Literature/Susan Dabney Smedes

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[Mrs. Susan Dabney Smedes was born at Raymond, Mississippi, in 1840, and was the daughter of Thomas S. Dabney, a planter whose life forms the basis of her description of life on a Southern plantation, entitled "Memorials of a Southern Planter." She was married in 1860 to Lyell Smedes, but was in a few months left a widow. Her life has been largely devoted to philanthropic work. Her home at present is Sewanee, Tennessee.]


And now a great blow fell on Thomas Dabney. Shortly before the war he had been asked by a trusted friend to put his name as security on some papers for a good many thousand dollars. At the time he was assured that his name would only be wanted to tide over a crisis of two weeks, and that he would never hear of the papers again. It was a trap set, and his unsuspicious nature saw no danger, and he put his name to the papers. Loving this man, and confiding in his honor as in a son's, he thought no more of the transaction.

It was now the autumn of 1866. One night he walked up stairs to the room where his children were sitting, with a paper in his hand. "My children," he said, "I am a ruined man. The sheriff is downstairs. He has served this writ on me. It is for a security debt. I do not even know how many more such papers have my name to them." His face was white as he said these words. He was sixty-eight years of age, with a large and helpless family on his hands, and the country in such a condition that young men scarcely knew how to make a livelihood.

The sheriff came with more writs. Thomas roused himself to meet them all. He determined to pay every dollar.

But to do this he must have time. The sale of everything that he owned would not pay all these claims. He put the business in the hands of his lawyer, Mr. John Shelton, of Raymond, who was also his intimate friend. Mr. Shelton contested the claims, and this delayed things till Thomas could decide on some way of paying the debts.

A gentleman to whom he owed personally several thousand dollars courteously forbore to send in his claim. Thomas was determined that he should not on this account fail to get his money, and wrote urging him to bring a friendly suit, that, if the worst came, he should at least get his proportion. Thus urged, the friendly suit was brought, the man deprecating the proceeding, as looking like pressing a gentleman.

And now the judgments, as he knew they would, went against him one by one. On the 27th of November, 1866, the Burleigh plantation was put up at auction and sold, but the privilege of buying it in a certain time reserved to Thomas. At this time incendiary fires were common. There was not much law in the land. We heard of the ginhouses and cotton-houses that were burned in all directions. One day as Thomas came back from a business journey the smoldering ruins of his ginhouse met his eye. The building was itself valuable and necessary. All the cotton that he owned was consumed in it. He had not a dollar. He had to borrow the money to buy a postage stamp, not only during this year but during many years to come. It was a time of deepest gloom. Thomas had been wounded to the bottom of his affectionate heart by the perfidy of the man who had brought this on his house. In the midst of the grinding poverty that now fell in full force on him, he heard of the reckless extravagance of this man on the money that should have been used to meet these debts.

Many honorable men in the South were taking the benefit of the bankrupt law. Thomas's relations and friends urged him to take the law. It was madness, they said, for a man of his age, in the condition the country was then in, to talk of settling the immense debts that were against him. He refused with scorn to listen to such proposals. But his heart was well-nigh broken.

He called his children around him, as he lay in bed, not eating and scarcely sleeping.

"My children," he said, "I shall have nothing to leave you but a fair name. But you may depend that I shall leave you that. I shall, if I live, pay every dollar that I owe. If I die, I leave these debts to you to discharge. Do not let my name be dishonored. Some men would kill themselves for this. I shall not do that. But I shall die."

The grief of betrayed trust was the bitterest drop in his cup of suffering. But he soon roused himself from this depression and set about arranging to raise the money needed to buy in the plantation. It could only be done by giving up all the money brought in by the cotton crop for many years. This meant rigid self-denial for himself and his children. He could not bear the thought of seeing his daughters deprived of comforts. He was ready to stand unflinchingly any fate that might be in store for him. But his tenderest feelings were stirred for them. His chivalrous nature had always revolted from the sight of a woman doing hard work. He determined to spare his daughters all such labor as he could perform. General Sherman had said that he would like to bring every Southern woman to the washtub. "He shall never bring my daughters to the washtub," Thomas Dabney said. "I will do the washing myself." And he did it for two years. He was in his seventieth year when he began to do it.

This may give some idea of the labors, the privations, the hardships, of those terrible years. The most intimate friends of Thomas, nay, his own children, who were not in the daily life at Burleigh, have never known the unprecedented self-denial, carried to the extent of acutest bodily sufferings, which he practiced during this time. A curtain must be drawn over this part of the life of my lion-hearted father!

When he grew white and thin, and his frightened daughters prepared a special dish for him, he refused to eat the delicacy. It would choke him, he said, to eat better food than they had, and he yielded only to their earnest solicitations. He would have died rather than ask for it. When the living was so coarse and so ill-prepared that he could scarcely eat it, he never failed, on rising from the table, to say earnestly and reverently, as he stood by his chair, "Thank the Lord for this much."

During a period of eighteen months no light in summer, and none but a fire in winter, except in some case of necessity, was seen in the house. He was fourteen years in paying these debts that fell on him in his sixty-ninth year. He lived but three years after the last dollar was paid.

  1. Reprinted from "Memorials of a Southern Planter," by permission of the holder of the copyright, James Pott & Company.