My father was a farmer and a country doctor who succumbed to the allure of the Cotton Kingdom, or more precisely his belief that the wealth brought by cotton could turn him into a “Southern gentleman.” The extremely labor-intensive nature of cotton, however, not to mention the greater acreage under cultivation, led to his becoming one of the largest slaveholders in the county, and gradually a family farm with several Negro hands became a model of the Southern plantation system. “Doctor Pelham,” as we called him, initially aspired to being a benevolent master, but I’m fairly certain that his growing obsession with the farm’s profitability cost him his humanity, not an unusual occurrence in the Cotton Kingdom of the 1850s.
What can I say about my two older brothers, Charles and William? While I found slavery grossly immoral and unfair, they eagerly accepted it as the way of things and relished the day they would become masters. They even idolized Ned, our vile cracker of an overseer, who reeked of alcohol and prided himself on “breaking” slaves. However much I may have failed to achieve my ideals, I’d like to think I aspired to man’s loftier ambitions, especially in contrast to my brothers. At an early age, for example, I was fascinated by the solar system and especially comets. After all, it was Halley’s Comet that proved Sir Isaac Newton’s theory that for every action there was an equal and opposite reaction. There’s reason to think that my extraordinary aptitude for cannon fire, downright genius some might say, was based on a unique appreciation of gravity and motion, principles essential to an artillerist.
Aryanna, that beautiful girl I mentioned earlier, was my first friend when Mammy (yeah, that’s right, I had a mammy) let me play outside in the yard. Mulattoes were considered no different from Negroes back then, but when you’re little you don’t really distinguish between black and white. I’d climb into the thickets to pick her bouquets of snow flowers, and we spent idyllic summer days sitting under the giant sycamore tree down by the pond on Cane Creek. That was our Eden of sorts, I suppose, even if it was soon to be spoiled by the coming of “King Cotton” and the unset of adulthood. When I was about twelve my mother forbade my friendship with Aryanna. “You’re getting too old to play with Negroes,” she said. If only she knew what was coming; or maybe that’s what she was doing her best to prevent.
It wasn’t long before Charles and William were abusing Aryanna unmercifully, and worst of all, they tried to force me upon her when I was finally old enough to perform the carnal act. That’s why Aryanna ran away and was lost to me, because of my brothers, and because she probably thought that, being one of the master’s sons, I was no different from them. I later learned she became a “fancy girl” in New Orleans, just as a lot of the beautiful light-skinned girls did in those days, when the only alternative was to be a house servant. There was a time when I thought my brothers were a disgrace unique to the Pelham family, but I long-since learned that such behavior was rampant across the Cotton Kingdom and the entire South. In fact, I became convinced that sexual exploitation was at the core of the antebellum plantation system and maybe the whole damn “peculiar institution” as well.
I’d have to say my youthful psyche was damaged further when I learned that my father had purchased Aryanna to serve as a sexual surrogate (a term we didn’t use so much in the mid-nineteenth century) for me and my brothers when we reached adolescence. My first childhood friend, the girl who became the love of my life, turned out to be nothing but a purchased whore! Being only a child, apparently she represented a wonderful opportunity to buy a “fancy girl” at a bargain price. Lord knows, Charles and William certainly got their money’s worth!
You should also know a little about Willis and Newton, two “young bucks” (as Ned called them) purchased by Doctor Pelham at the New Orleans slave market. Maybe it was because my brothers were as good as lost to me, but I swear I did my best to earn those two boys’ friendship, even if they were Negroes and I was one of the master’s sons. Seeing no way to improve their circumstances on the farm, I devised a plan for them to earn their freedom. But Doctor Pelham was inflexible, finally bringing about the irreparable split between father and son, including my decision to leave the farm and become a soldier. That’s when I vowed to free Willis and Newton from that damn cotton farm “if it was the last thing I did.” And, as it turned out, it pretty much was.
Last but by no means least, I cannot forget Mammy Katie, our family’s black mammy (if you’ll pardon the stereotype created by Gone with the Wind, vilely false piece of claptrap that it was). I think Mammy loved me extra much because I was different from my brothers, and she knew I did my best for Willis and Newton. I know I let her down when I went off to West Point, just like I did Willis and Newton, but I don’t think any power on earth would break the special bond between us. When Willis and Newton went off to war with me, serving as my body servants, Mammy charged them with looking after me and later held them at least partly responsible for my death. Is that the most ridiculous thing you ever heard? There I was, the “gallant Pelham,” using my big guns to lay destruction to the Federals, while Willis and Newton, still in bondage, were somewhere behind the lines doing my laundry—but she expected them to protect me!