While drafting the post Half-white Slaves of Aristocratic Masters at my blog, I acknowledged that Edward Ball, in his text, The Sweet Hell Inside: The Rise of an Elite Black Family in the Segregated South, employs the term ‘concubines’ to describe intimate, long-term relationships between master and female slaves. It was a theme I followed up, at the post These Negroes Reveal A Curious Superiority, where cultural critic H. L. Menken observed in 1920 that the practice carried on, in 20th century society: “The more slightly yellow girls of the region, with improving economic opportunities, have gained self-respect, and so they are no longer as willing to enter into concubinage as their grand-dams were.”
Researching a Civil War battle which did great trauma in my paternal line, a similarly evocative account presented itself. Titled A Southern “Lady” in Annals of the Army of the Cumberland, author John Fitch thought it worth recording reminiscences offered by Union Colonel Jonathan Rice Miles (right) of the 27th Regiment, Illinois Volunteer Infantry.
“On a pleasant Sabbath afternoon,” during the war and “down in Alabama,” Miles “reclined listlessly in his tent” when a carriage drove up.
The colonel’s sensibilities were about to be awakened:
The horses were of the finest, the coach elegant, and the driver with gloves, &c. á la mode. A beautifully-dressed lady was the occupant, a little dark in feature, perhaps, but still fair. Her hair was in ringlets, a “love of a bonnet” on her head, a large pin glittering upon her breast, and jewelry displayed elsewhere in profusion. The colonel walked to the carriage with due alacrity, saluted the lady most respectfully, and awaited her commands. She said she resided on a plantation near by, and had come to inquire about a straw-cutting machine that had been borrowed or taken by the soldiers. The colonel made due explanation, and said the machine should speedily be returned.
“I hope so,” said she; “for Master Mosely needs it sadly.”
“What’s that? Did you say Master Mosely?”
“Yes, sir, I did.”
“You don’t say that he is your master, that you are a slave, do you?”
The “lady” — we suppose we must continue to call her a “lady,” for consistency’s sake — smiled quite charmingly, as she replied, calmly, “Yes, sir.”
The colonel took a second glance at the carriage, the horses, the silvered harness, the driver, and then at the finely-dressed person within, and was completely astounded, albeit he was born and raised in Kentucky, near the Tennessee line, not more than thirty miles from Nashville.
“Pray,” queried he, further, “is your master a married man?”
“No: he is a widower.”
“Well, does he treat you as his wife?”
She did not answer this question direct, but bade the driver start on, and, as she was driven off, remarked, “I live in his house.”
Fitch, with due diligence, gives background to the consorts.
“Subsequent inquiries revealed the following state of the case. A Virginia planter had sold this girl to go South, upon the express agreement that she was to be handsomely provided for, the general supposition being that she was his child. The trader brought her to this widower’s designedly, and doubled his money in the trade. She was now perhaps thirty years old, and certainly a very handsome woman. Mosely was a rich planter, living on Mallard Creek, about half-way between Courtland and Decatur, and had a family by his first wife, one of whom was a daughter, now some sixteen years of age.”
I realized I had sufficient clues to follow on with research of my own. William Moseley, Jr. (1810-1889) married Martha Adelia Pryor Kimbell (1826-1859) in 1855. Martha died a few days after giving birth to daughter Martha Elizabeth, on 25 February. All three have been reinterred in Decatur, Alabama.
Mosely owned 84 slaves, according to the 1860 census; about fifty were under the age of ten. An unidentified, 35-year-old female (green highlight, above) is one of two listed as mulatto; the other being a 10-year-old female.
It’s unlikely that Mosely’s slaves were all “handsomely provided for.” An undated account from Theodore Dwight Weld’s 1839 American Slavery, As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses notices him as a younger man at his father’s home: “Visiting at a Mr. Mosely’s, near Courtland, William Mosely came in with a bloody knife in his hand, having just stabbed a negro man,” reports William Barr. Curiously, the antebellum narrative has Moseley policing a woman of color’s relationship. “The negro was sitting quietly in a house in the village, keeping a woman company who had been left in charge of the house, when Mosely, passing along, went in and demanded his business there. Probably his answer was not as civil as slaveholding requires, and Mosely rushed upon him and stabbed him. The wound laid him up for a season. Mosely was called to no account for it.”
Moseley apparently brooked no legal consequences. It may be that the victim was his own slave, or perhaps a free man; his owner would certainly have had legal means to obtain recompense if Moseley had outright killed his chattel property.
Concubinage was certainly not always a glamorous affair. Barr contributed “a multitude of horrid facts that were perfectly notorious in the neighborhood of Courtland.” His account, immediately following that of Moseley, describes a Negro woman shot in the head at close range, “in consequence of some difficulty in [her master’s] dealings with her as a concubine.” The Southern ‘Lady’ who astounded Miles had a truly precarious perch in that carriage.
OUT-OF-CONTEXT RESEARCH NOTES OF A MORE CONTEMPORARY NATURE:
Author Deborah Heal fictionalized the above Colonel Miles’ children – as conductors for the Underground Railroad – in her 2013 history mystery, Time and Again.
Re-publishers of Weld’s American Slavery, As It Is, released a promotional video, below, that same year.
Not for the faint of heart. (5 mins.)