It all started back in the days of the “Cotton Kingdom.”
(If there’s anything I hated, it was the Cotton Kingdom!)
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.
One famous proponent of slavery once argued that the “peculiar institution” helped protect white women’s virtue. I just can’t imagine what he meant by that.
If I were a black dude, I’d sure as hell rather be called a “buck” than a “boy.”
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!