Back to the Beginning
It was 12 years ago when I had my very first stay in a slave cabin at Boone Hall Plantation in Mt. Pleasant, SC. The event was filmed for a History Channel documentary titled The Unfinished Civil War. The documentary aired a few times but flopped because confederate reenactors came out in numbers and complained about the way they were portrayed.
It was during that stay 12 years ago that I woke up about 3:00 am to the sound of dogs barking in the background. I immediately thought of slaves trying to escape and being chased by dogs. Today, just as I am curious about my ancestry, I look at blood hounds and wonder if their blood line includes dogs that were once used to hunt down escaping slaves.
Fast forward 12 years and I again got the opportunity to spend the night in a cabin at Boone Hall Plantation. This time would be different. This stay would occur during the reenactment of the Civil War battle known as Secessionville, an historic battle that occurred on James Island, SC 150 years earlier. For years this battle has been reenacted at Boone Hall making it the largest Civil War battle reenactment in the state of South Carolina.
Although I had participated in the reenactment in various ways in the past, I saw this as a great opportunity for the reenactment and the Slave Dwelling Project to merge. I was urged by the property owners to coordinate my stay with the organizers of the reenactment which turned out to be a good strategy because this event was theirs and not mine. The organizers gave me an offer that I could not refuse.
We agreed that I would come in on Friday, November 9th to address the school kids that would be coming to the event. My subject would be the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. I addressed hundreds of kids from 2nd grade through middle school and homeschoolers. I really enjoyed testing their knowledge of the Civil War and inserting the story of how African Americans became soldiers for the Union army. Their reactions were varied to my intent to stay in one of the slave cabins the following two nights.
They are Not Always What They Seem
I had obtained from the property owner the permission for others to join me in the stay in the cabin and by this time in the project I have come accustomed to it. Several people made promises to do just that but for various reasons the first night in the cabin would be mine alone. Before the cabin experience, I had the opportunity to walk through the Union Civil War encampment and was quickly reminded of why I became a Civil War reenactor. Behind the big house where the camp was located was a sea of tents of various sizes with camp fires at random intervals burning throughout.
It was my goal to get to as many of those camp fires as I possibly could to interact with the people sitting around them. In the reenactment community we galvanize meaning we may put on the uniform of the opposing force so that we can give the public a more realistic representation of a Civil War battle. It is far easier for some to galvanize than others however galvanizing does not change ones personal opinions or beliefs about the Civil War. As I walked through the camp, the groups would tell me which Union group that they would represent during the battle reenactment. They would also tell me which Confederate group they represent most often. As I continued to walk through the camp with the cover of darkness increasingly concealing my identity, I came across a conversation that was very racially insensitive so I decided that was not the best encampment of which to interact.
All of my other encounters were quite rewarding the most of which was a free concert. Drawn by the music, I came upon a camp fire scene where two musicians were playing banjos and one was playing a guitar and several people were singing. I joined in and for me they played and sang Amazing Grace. After the song my immediate instinct was to query the participants about the history of the song but not wanting to be out of order, I continued to enjoy the free concert.
Since my first stay in the cabin, Boone Hall had done a wonderful job with their restoration. I chose the cabin with the Sweet Grass basket display in it. I came prepared as usual anticipating that I would need the use of lanterns but the electricity needed to operate the displays made the lanterns unnecessary. All of the cabins were equipped with displays that, with the push of a button, all visitors could learn about some aspect of the cabins and the people who inhabited them. Sleeping alone in the cabin was not a challenge because I was well aware of all of the activities related to the reenactment that was happening on the property. The solitude was welcome. It gave me the opportunity to reminiscence about the Slave Dwelling Project and how it can be enhanced.
The Rest of the Story
Saturday would be the first day for reenacting the battle. Waking up alone in the cabin early that morning, gave me a great opportunity to do some writing. The 39 degree temperature made it somewhat of a challenge to keep warm but a campfire that was burning not so far from the cabin was welcoming. One of the event organizers came by to invite me back to the 2013 event.
The Civil War camps began to come alive; the suttlers (Civil War merchants) opened their doors; the sweet grass basket makers manned their station; and Boone Hall employees opened all of the cabins for public viewing. The interpreter for the slave street story came by to write the times on a chalk board for which she would be telling the stories of the cabins and the people who lived in them. I listened intently to the first presentation and was thoroughly impressed. Because I was not officially on the docket, I asked if I could have some time with her future audiences to talk about the Slave Dwelling Project. Lucky for me, she heard my interpretation to the school kids the day before and agreed that I could be value added to her message. That tag team approach went over well and has some potential for future development. I got various reactions from the audiences. One gentleman regrettably confessed to me that his ancestors were slave owners. One other couple made me aware of a lone cabin in Tennessee of which they can help me gain access.
Anyone who has been keeping up with the project through this blog know that Terry James (Old Reliable) has stayed in a slave dwelling with me more times than any other person. He would join me the second night. When he got there early in the evening, all of the food vendors were closed so getting him fed would be a challenge. That challenge was easily overcome when on our first stop at the Union camp, we were offered dinner which we unhesitatingly accepted. We dined on a green bean and a potato mixture, navy beans and ham which were deliciously all cooked over an open fire. We thanked the cooks but passed on the very tempting dessert that they offered us.
The Battle of Secessionville Civil War reenactment included a ball which was held at the Cotton Dock on the plantation. Terry and I made our appearance there before we turned in for the night. While there, the invitations for our Civil War group to participate in an upcoming battle reenactment continued. This invitation was one of several which will unfortunately not be honored because our membership has been stagnant for the past few years.
Before entering the cabin for the night, we spent a little time around the fire talking about some of the notable past slave dwellings stays. Inside the cabin, Terry attached the shackles to his wrists and we both feel asleep.
The next morning as the camps started to come alive, we cleaned up the cabin, took lots of pictures and went our separate ways.
The Future of the Project
So there you have it, the Slave Dwelling Project 2012. The year 2013 will hold some surprises and firsts for the project. There will be some repeat stays but because of my stay at Bacon’s Castle in Surry, Virginia those stays will be more robust. Like the stay at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, there will be another institution of higher learning added to the roster. Private owners will be well represented.
In its existence, the Slave Dwelling Project has covered Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. There are states that are blatantly missing from the list. Ambassadors, your mission, should you choose to accept, be it a plantation or urban slavery, help find those places in those states that can help further the cause of the Slave Dwelling Project.
What a great project! I so enjoyed reading your summary of your stays and I look forward to learning what is to come in the following year. Great work Joe.
I enjoyed reading this, please don't give on these ideas. I don't know about spending the night but I would love to visit this plantation and experience as much as possible.
Mr. McGill, Your work is priceless. Would like to share a plantation site with you as an inquiry. Two locations
1.Gwyn Family homestead, Winston-Salem N.C.
2.Groome Inn 500 acre plantation, Greensboro N.C,
Please contact us in Erie, Pa 1Lt Luther Manus, Buffalo Soldier Retired 1-814-838-7005