Black History Month and “Civil War Memory”
by Bill Vallante
One of the most entertaining of the southern civilian slave narratives comes from “Praise de Lawd” Rilla Patterson. It’s a bit on the lengthy side and like many of the Slave Narratives, the words in the passages are spelled exactly as Ms. Patterson pronounced them, making reading difficult at best. But you’ve got to read this to believe it! You might just find yourself yelling – “YOU GO GIRL!” Here is her complete “narrative”.
“Praise de Lawd” Rilla Patterson Jones, North Carolina, (The Slave Narratives)
"Yes’m, I ‘members ’bout de war, I ‘members kaze I was one of dese here praise niggers. I was a praise nigger kaze I rode a mule named Bob slap through de Yankee lines wid a paper for Marse Frank an’ de blue coats never got me. Dat paper tole Marse Frank de Yankees was gwine to charge an’ for him to get ready to meet dem. Dat’s why I’se named Praise De Lawd Rilla Patterson Jones.
I was ’bout four hands high in de war. Mis’ Cynthy an’ Marse Frank Patterson was my white folks. When Marse Frank went off to fight dey wasn’ nobody left at home ‘cept Mis’ Cynthy an’ her two little chillun, little Mis’ Rose an’ young Marse Frank. He was a baby. Dey was Ole Marse Patterson, Marse Frank’s pappy, but he was so ole he wasn’ much good, but he kept Mis’ Cynthy from bein’ too skeered.
Mis’ Cynthy was little an’ soft. She had long black hair dat when she let it down it touched de floor at her feets; it was so long dat Mammy had to brush an’ plait it for her, den she wound it ’round Mis’ Cynthy’s head like a crown, an’ when she pin a pink rose behin’ her ear she looked like a fancy picture. Mammy loved Mis’ Cynthy an’ dem chillun. She loved dem so good she wouldn’ allow nobody to wait on dem ‘cept herse’f. My mammy was Magnolia Patterson an’ my pappy was Ruba Patterson. After Marse Frank went to de war pappy worked ’round de house too. He was sort of a body guard wid de other airedales on de place. My pappy say he could smell a Yankee a mile away, an’ he could near ’bout do it.
One day a passel of Yankees come to de house. Dey was six of dem. Dey rode big hosses wid fancy bridles an’ dey had finer gold braid an’ buttons on dey clothes den de Yankees dat done come befo’. Pappy say dey was head mens in de army. Dese sojers rode up to de house an’ flung de reins to de niggers an’ tole dem to take de hosses to de stable an’ feed dem, den de mens come to de house. ‘Twas ’bout sundown an’ sort of cold an’ dey was fires burnin’ in de big fireplaces an’ candles burnin’ on de mantel shelf. De talles’ Yankee come in first. He stop in de hall an’ look ’round, den he rub his hands like he mighty pleased. ‘Bout dat time he seed Mis’ Cynthy standin’ in de dinin’ room door. He put his hand to his cap an’ make a bow. ‘Sorry to ‘sturb you, Madam,’ he say, ‘but it’s cold an’ frosty outside so we’s come in to supper an’ to spend de night.’
Mis’ Cynthy showed him respect. She knew ‘twouldn’ do no good to do nothin’ else. She tole him to take his mens an’ go in de parlor room by de fire while she had de niggers to fix supper. Time de chickens was picked an’ cooked, de coffee made an’ de biscuits browned, ’twas near ’bout nine o’clock. Den Mis’ Cynthy tole Channy an’ Mozella to put de things on de table an’ tole Pappy to wait on de mens, to show dem dey rooms an’ such as dat, den she took Mammy an’ went up stairs to her room an’ shut de door.
Many said ’twas ’bout daylight when Pappy come tappin’ on Mis’ Cynthy’s door. She an’ Mis’ Cynthy done been settin’ up all night. Dey was skeered to go to bed wid dem Yankees in de house. When Pappy come in his eyes was near ’bout bustin’ out of his head. He come tip-toein’ ‘cross de room an’ his voice won’t no louder den a breath of wind. He tole Mis’ Cynthy dat after dem Yankees done eat dey supper an’ he done serve dem a bottle of dram, dat dey forgot all ’bout him an’ ‘gun to tawk ‘mong deyse’fs. Pappy say dem sojers was spies dat been scoutin’ ’round lookin’ for de Federate lines; dat dey done found de 13th infantry camped ’bout ten miles down de Fish Dam road, an’ dat dese mens what done eat at her table was on de way back to Hillsboro to get more sojers to ‘tack de Federates.
Mis’ Cynthy lissen to Pappy an’ her face got white as picked cotton. ‘Dat’s Marse Frank’s infantry dey gwine ‘tack,’ Ruba, she whisper. ‘What we gwine do; how’s we gwine warn him?’ Pappy shook his head. Mis’ Cynthy got up an’ ‘gun to walk de floor. ‘Twon’ do to send you, Ruba,’ she say, ‘kaze dey’s Yankees in de woods to de east an’ de west, an’ if dey catch you dey’ll search you from head to foot, den dey’ll shoot you for totin’ a warnin’. I can’t send none of de niggers an’ dey ain’t nobody else to send.’ She ‘gun to cry, den Mammy got up an’ went over to de cradle an’ looked at little Marse Frank suckin’ his thumb, den she went back to Mis’ Cynthy. ‘You can send Rilla, Mistis,’ she say jus’ like dat.
‘Rilla!’ Mis’ Cynthy stop in her walk an’ look at mammy like she done gone crazy. ‘Magnolia,’ she say, ‘is you done lost your mind? How can Rilla take a note to Marse Frank? He am ten miles away from here, ‘sides, I done tole you de woods am full of Yankees.’ She ‘gun to cry an’ laugh together, so Mammy poured out a strong dram an’ made her drink it, den she tole her what was on her mind. ‘Rilla’s gwine take dat note to Marse Frank,’ she say, ‘she gwine get on ole Bob mule an’ go dat ten miles. She can go dare befo’ dem Yankee spies does kaze dey got to go to Hillsboro to get more sojers an’ ‘nition, den come back an’ catch Marse Frank’s mens. Time dey does dat Rilla can go to de camp an’ be on de way back home, but she got to start right now.’
But Mis’ Cynthy shook her head. ‘I can’t do dat, Magnolia. Dey’s Yankee pickets in de woods an’ I’se skeered for Rilla.’
‘Dem Yankees ain’t gwine hurt no nigger chile,’ Mammy look at Mis’ Cynthy. ‘Dey mout search her but dey won’t find nothin’. I’se gwine see to dat.’But Mis’ Cynthy wouldn’ agree. ‘Twon’t ”til Mammy pointed to de cradle an’ said ‘You want dat chile to have a pappy, don’t you, Honey? I’se tellin’ you now if sumpin’ ain’t done he liable to never know he had a pappy a tall.’ Den Mis’ Cynthy give in.
It was jus’ daylight when Mammy woke me up. She took me down to Mis’ Cynthy an’ tole me what I had to do; dat I had to ride Bob mule to Marse Frank’s camp an’ give him a note but nobody mustn’ know nothin’ ’bout it. If anybody stopped me an’ ax me whare I was from an’ whare I was gwine, I must say I was from Marse Gabe Johnson’ plantation an’ dat I was gwine to Marse Luther Hayes wid some resberry wine for his wife who was sick wid dysentary. When Mammy finish tellin’ me Mis’ Cynthy ‘gun to wring her hands an’ say, ‘She can’t do it, Magnolia, I tell you she can’t do it; she too little, she’ll get skeered an’ tell everything she knows.’
‘What, Rilla tell?’ Mammy was gettin’ mad. ‘Dat chile ain’t gwine tell nothin’ I tells her not to tell, she knows better.’ An’ I sho did know better. Dem Yankees mout of drug my tongue out an’ I wouldn’ tole dem nothin.
Mammy mixed up some sulpher an’ tar an’ spread it ‘tween my fingers an’ toes, den she got a dirty, greasy rag smellin’ wid sulpher, tar, an’ tu’pentine an’ wrapped it ’round my leg, an’ hid in dat rag was de note Mis’ Cynthy done wrote Marse Frank tellin’ him ’bout de spies. Den Mammy look at me hard an’ say, ‘Member, Rilla, if anybody ax you ’bout dat leg, you’s got de itch, hear, de high black ball itch.’ I nodded kaze I knew if I didn’ say de itch dat I would be itchin’ all over when I got back home an’ Mammy got done wid me. Dey set me on Bob mule. Dey wasn’ no saddle but dey was a blanket. Pappy give me de rains an’ Mis’ Cunthy give me a covered basket wid two bottles of rasberry wine wrapped up in a linen napkin, an’ I rode off down de drive an’ through de big gates.
It was cold kaze de sun hadn’ come up, an’ dat ole Bob mule wouldn’ go out of a walk. Dat de stubbornes’ mule I ever seed, all my kickin’ didn’ do no good, so I jus’ set an’ let him take his time. ‘Twuzn’ way yonder near ’bout dinner time an’ I done eat de ‘lasses biscuit Mammy give me, dat I seed any Yankees. I looked way down de road an’ seed two of dem standin’ at de edge of de woods. I was skeered kaze I couldn’ make ole Bob mule run, but I jus’ kept mozin’ ‘long. When I got close up one of de sojers stepped out in de road an’ say, ‘Halt, but I kept right on. Den he say ‘Halt’ again, but I kept on kaze I didn’ know what he was talkin’ ’bout. Den he grabbed Bob’s bridle an’ pulled him up. ‘Who’s you, Nigger, an’ whar’s you’s gwine nohow?’ he say.
Ah tole him I was Rilla from over here at Marse Gabe Johnson’s place; dat I was on my way to Marse Luther Hayes house wid some rasberry wine for Mis’ Carry Hayes kaze she was sick. She got de dysentary I tole him.
‘You mighty little to be ridin’ ’round by yo’se’f,’ he say. I tole him yes, suh, I sholly was, but dey wasn’ nobody else to send. ‘Bout dat time de other sojer come up an’ look at me mean. ‘What you got in dat basket, winch?’ he say. Den he snatched de basket an’ lift de lid an’ grab out de wine. He hold de bottle up to de light an’ sniff at it, den he smack his mouf. ‘Dis am wine, George,’ he say to de sojer holdin Bob’s bridle, ‘Befo’ God, ’tis. How ’bout er swig?’
I ‘gun to holler. Don’t drink dat wine, Mistah Yankee, I yell, dat wine’s for a sick lady, an’ she gwine die if she don’t get dat ferment. De big sojer holdin’ de mule turn loose de bridle an grab me ’round de let. ‘Shut your black mouf, Nigger, befo’ I breaks your neck.’ He look ’round like he skeered somebody gwine hear me, an’ I shut up kaze I was so skeered I near ’bout fell off Dat Yankee was holdin’ my leg right over de rag Mammy done tied ’round it. I was skeered he was gwine feel de note dat was folded inside dat rag. He held my leg so tight dat I swinged.
‘What’s de matter wid your leg?’ he say, holdin’ me tighter.I’se got de itch. I tole him, de high black ball itch. See dat sulpher an’ tar ‘tween my toes? It’s on my hands too. I held out my hands an’ spread out my fingers so he could see an’ smell dat nasty sticky mess.
Dat Yankee drap my leg like it was a blazin’ coal. ‘Get out here, you stinkin’ lepper,’ he say, den he hit ole Bob mule so hard on his rump dat befo’ he thought he went off down de road in a trot. ‘Twasn’ ’til I got way down other side of de hill dat I ‘membered dat dems sojers done kept de wine, but I didn’ care kaze ‘twuzn’ long befo’ I seed Marse Frank’s camp. When I tole Marse Frank ’bout de note in de tied ’round my leg he had a ‘niption fit. He say, ‘Rilla, you mean to tell me you done rode ole Bob mule by dem Yankee pickets an’ got here wid dis letter?’ I tole him I sho had.
Marse Frank wrote a letter to Mis’ Cynthy an’ tied it up in de rag ’round my leg again, den he took me in a tent an’ give my some hard tack an’ beef, an’ all de sojers come ’round laughin’ kaze I tole dat Yankee I had de itch. When Marse Frank sent me home he sent me through de woods by de foot path so I would miss de road. Jus’ give ole Bob de reins he say an’ he’ll take you de right way.
When I got back to de big house ’twas near ’bout dark. Mis’ Cynthy was walkin’ up an’ down de front porch wid her red shawl wrapped ’bout her, an’ Mammy was settin’ on de steps. Dey run out an’ took me off Ole Bob mule an’ toted me in de house; dey toted me in de parlor room an’ set my by de fire in de big red velvet chair. When she got de letter out of de rag an’ read it, Mis’ Cunthy ‘gun to laugh an’ cry both. ‘You done save Marse Frank, Rilla, you sholey have. Dey’s no tellin’ how many ‘Federates you done saved. Kaze now when dem Yankees charge de 13th infantry’s gwine to be enfo’ced wid more regiments.’
Mammy hold up her hands an’ say, ‘Praise de Lawd.’ After dat I was called Praise De Lawd Rilla.""