The letters of Eliza Wilkinson present a lively picture of the situation of many inhabitants of that portion of country which was the scene of various skirmishes about the time of Lincoln's approach to relieve Charleston from Prevost, the retreat of that commander, and the engagement at Stono Ferry. The description given of occurrences is not only interesting as a graphic detail, but as exhibiting traits of female character worthy of all admiration. It is much to be regretted that her records do not embrace a longer period of time.
Her father was an emigrant from Wales, and always had much pride in his Welsh name, Francis Yonge. He had three children, Eliza and two sons; and owned what is called Yonge's Island. He was old and infirm, and suffered much rough treatment at the hands of the British, from whom he refused to take a protection. Both his sons died - one the death of a soldier; and the old family name now lives in Charleston in the person of Francis Yonge Porcher, great grandchild of the subject of this notice.
Mrs. Wilkinson had been married only six months when her first husband died. At the period of the war, she was a young and beautiful widow, with fascinating manners, quick at repartee, and full of cheerfulness and good humor. Her place of residence, Yonge's Island, lies thirty miles south of Charleston. The Cherokee rose which still flourishes there in great abundance, hedging the long avenue, and the sight of the creek and causeway that separate the island from the mainland, call up many recollections of her. She bore her part in Revolutionary trials and privations, and was frequently a sufferer from British cruelty.
Mrs. Wilkinson was in Charleston when news came that a large party of the enemy had landed near Beaufort. With a few friends, she went over to her father's plantation, but did not remain there long; for upon receiving information that a body of British horse were within five or six miles, the whole party, with the exception of her father and mother, crossed the river to Wadmalaw, and went for refuge to the house of her sister. A large boatload of women and children, hurrying for safety to Charleston, stayed with them a day or two, and presented a sad spectacle of the miseries brought in the train of war. One woman with seven children, the youngest but two weeks old, preferred venturing her own life and that of her tender infant, to captivity in the hands of a merciless foe.
Mrs. Wilkinson remained at Wadmalaw for some time, and at length returned to her home on the island. The surrounding country was waiting in a distressed condition for the coming of General Lincoln, to whom the people looked for deliverance. Many painful days of suspense passed before tidings were received. All trifling discourse, she says, was laid aside - the ladies who gathered in knots talking only of political affairs. At last her brothers, with the Willtown troops, arrived from Charleston, and brought the joyful news of the approach of Lincoln. The dreaded enemy had not yet invaded the retirement of Yonge's Island; although it was suspected that spies were lurking about, and boatloads of redcoats were frequently seen passing and re-passing on the river. Mrs. Wilkinson retreated with her sister to an inland country-seat.
There they were called on by parties of the Americans, whom they always received with friendly hospitality. "The poorest soldier," says one letter, "who would call at any time for a drink of water, I would take a pleasure in giving it to him myself; and many a dirty, ragged fellow have I attended with a bowl of water, or milk and water: they really merit every thing, who will fight from principle alone; for from what I could learn, these poor creatures had nothing to protect, and seldom got their pay; yet with what alacrity will they encounter danger and hardships of every kind!"
One night a detachment of sixty redcoats passed the gate with the intention of surprising Lieutenant Morton Wilkinson at a neighboring plantation. A negro woman was their informer and guide; but their attempt was unsuccessful. On re-passing the avenue early the next morning, they made a halt at the head of it, but a negro man dissuaded them from entering, by telling them the place belonged to a decrepit old gentleman, who did not then live there. They took his word for it, and passed on.
On the second of June, two men belonging to the enemy, rode up to the house, and asked many questions, saying that Colonel M'Girth and his soldiers might be presently looked for, and that the inmates could expect no mercy. The family remained in a state of cruel suspense for many hours. The following morning a party of the whigs called at the gate, but did not alight. One of them, in leaping a ditch, was hurt, and taken into the house for assistance; and while they were dressing his wound, a negro girl gave the alarm that the "king's people" were coming. The two men mounted their horses and escaped: the women awaited the enemy's approach. Mrs. Wilkinson writes to a friend: "I heard the horses of the inhuman Britons coming in such a furious manner, that they seemed to tear up the earth, the riders at the same time bellowing out the most horrid curses imaginable - oaths and imprecations which chilled my whole frame.
Surely, thought I, such horrid language denotes nothing less than death; but I had no time for thought - they were up to the house - entered with drawn swords and pistols in their hands: indeed they rushed in in the most furious manner, crying out, 'Where are these women rebels?' That was the first salutation! The moment they espied us, off went our caps. (I always heard say none but women pulled caps!) And for what, think you? Why, only to get a paltry stone and wax pin, which kept them on our heads; at the same time uttering the most abusive language imaginable, and making as if they would hew us to pieces with their swords. But it is not in my power to describe the scene: it was terrible to the last degree; and what augmented it, they had several armed negroes with them, who threatened and abused us greatly. They then began to plunder the house of every thing they thought valuable or worth taking; our trunks were split to pieces, and each mean, pitiful wretch crammed his bosom with the contents, which were our apparel, &c.
"I ventured to speak to the inhuman monster who had my clothes. I represented to him the times were such we could not replace what they had taken from us, and begged him to spare me only a suit or two: but I got nothing but a hearty curse for my pains; nay, so far was his callous heart from relenting, that casting his eyes towards my shoes, 'I want them buckles,' said he; and immediately knelt at my feet to take them out. While he was busy doing this, a brother villain, whose enormous mouth extended from ear to ear, bawled out, 'Shares there, I say! shares!' So they divided my buckles between them. The other wretches were employed in the same manner; they took my sister's earrings from her ears, her and Miss Samuells' buckles; they demanded her ring from her finger; she pleaded for it, told them it was her wedding ring, and begged they would let her keep it; but they still demanded it; and presenting a pistol at her, swore if she did not deliver it immediately, they would fire. She gave it to them; and after bundling up all their booty, they mounted their horses. But such despicable figures! Each wretch's bosom stuffed so full, they appeared to be all afflicted with some dropsical disorder. Had a party of rebels (as they call us) appeared, we should have seen their circumference lessen.
"They took care to tell us, when they were going away, that they had favored us a great deal that we might thank our stars it was no worse. I had forgot to tell you that upon their first entering the house, one of them gave my arm such a violent grasp, that he left the print of his thumb and three fingers in black and blue, which was to be seen very plainly for several days afterwards. I showed it to one of our officers who dined with us, as a specimen of British cruelty. After they were gone, I began to be sensible of the danger I had been in, and the thoughts of the vile men seemed worse (if possible) than their presence; for they came so suddenly up to the house, that I had no time for thought; and while they stayed, I seemed in amaze - quite stupid! I cannot describe it. But when they were gone, and I had time to consider, I trembled so with terror that I could not support myself. I went into the room, threw myself on the bed, and gave way to a violent burst of grief, which seemed to be some relief to my swollen heart."
This outrage was followed by a visit from M'Girth's men, who treated the ladies with more civility; one of them promising to make a report at camp of the usage they had received. It was little consolation, however, to know that the robbers would probably be punished. The others, who professed so much feeling for the fair, were not content without their share of plunder, though more polite in the manner of taking it." While the British soldiers were talking to us, some of the silent ones withdrew, and presently laid siege to a beehive, which they soon brought to terms. The others perceiving it, cried out, 'Hand the ladies a plate of honey.' This was immediately done with officious haste, no doubt thinking they were very generous in treating us with our own. There were a few horses feeding in the pasture. They had them driven up. 'Ladies, do either of you own these horses ?' 'No; they partly belonged to father and Mr. Smilie!' 'Well, ladies, as they are not your property, we will take them! "'
They asked the distance to the other settlements; and the females begged that forbearance might be shown to the aged father. He was visited the same day by another body of troops, who abused him and plundered the house. "One came to search mother's pockets, too, but she resolutely threw his hand aside. 'if you must see what's in my pocket, I'll show you myself;' and she took out a threadcase, which had thread, needles, pins, tape, &c. The mean wretch took it from her." . . . "After drinking all the wine, rum, &c., they could find, and inviting the negroes they had with them, who were very insolent, to do the same, they went to their horses, and would shake hands with father and mother before their departure. Fine amends, to be sure!"
After such unwelcome visitors, it is not surprising that the unprotected women could not eat or sleep in peace. They lay in their clothes every night, alarmed by the least noise; while the days were spent in anxiety and melancholy. One morning, when Mrs. Wilkinson was coming out of her chamber, her eyes fixed on the window - for she was continually on the watch - she saw something glitter through a thin part of the wood bordering the road. It proved to be the weapons of a large body of soldiers. As they came from the direction of the enemy's encampment, she concluded they were British troops; and every one in the house took the alarm. "Never was there such a scene of confusion. Sighs, complaints, wringing of hands - one running here, another there, spreading the dreadful tidings; and in a little time the negroes in the field came running up to the house with a hundred stories. Table, tea-cups - all the breakfast apparatus, were immediately huddled together and borne off; and we watched sharply to see which way the enemy (as we supposed them) took. But, oh! horrible! in a minute or two we saw our avenue crowded with horsemen in uniform. Said I, 'that looks like our uniform-blue and red;' but I immediately recollected to have heard that the Hessian uniform was much like ours; so out of the house we went, into an out-house." Their excessive fright prevented the explanation attempted from being understood. While the officer was endeavoring to re-assure the terrified ladies, a negro woman came up, and tapping Mrs. Wilkinson on the shoulder, whispered, "I don't like these men; one of them gave me this piece of silver for some milk; and I know our people don't have so much silver these times."
Their dismay and terror were groundless; for the horsemen were a party of Americans, under the command of Major Moore. The one taken for a Hessian was a French officer. The mistake had been mutual; the distress shown at sight of them having caused the officer in command to conclude himself and his men unwelcome visitors to some tory family. The discovery that they were friends changed fear into delight. "They then laughed at me," says Mrs. Wilkinson, 'heartily for my fright ' -saying that they really expected, by the time I had done wringing my hands, I would have no skin left upon them; but now they knew the reason they no longer wondered."
Word was presently brought that a number of the enemy were carrying provisions from a plantation about two miles distant. The whigs marched to the place, and returned with seven prisoners. Two of these were of M'Girth's party, who had treated the ladies so cruelly; yet notwithstanding the injuries received, the kind heart of Mrs. Wilkinson relented at the sight of them. She expressed pity for their distress, calling them friends, because they were in the power of her countrymen; and interceded for them with the captors. Enquiring if they would like any thing to drink, she supplied them with the water they craved, holding the glass to their lips, as their hands were tied behind them. Several of the American officers, who had gathered at the door and window, were smiling at the, unusual scene. "In the meanwhile," she writes, 'Miss Samuells was very busy about a wounded officer, (one of M'Girth's,) who had been brought to the house. He had a ball through his arm; we could find no rag to dress his wounds, everything in the house being thrown into such confusion by the plunderers; but (see the native tenderness of an American!) Miss Samuells took from her neck the only remaining handkerchief the Britons had left her, and with it bound up his arm."
Their friends having left them, Mr. Yonge sent for his daughter to his own plantation. The ladies were obliged to walk three miles, the horses having been taken away; but umbrellas were sent for them, and they were attended by two of Mr. Yonge's negro men armed with clubs. While crossing a place called the Sands, the blacks captured and wounded a negro belonging to the loyalists, who came out of the woods. Mrs. Wilkinson interfered to save his life; and to insure the safety of the poor creature who claimed her protection, and who was dragged on rapidly by his captors - they fearing pursuit - was obliged to walk very fast, leaving the, others behind, till she was ready to faint from fatigue and the overpowering heat. They arrived safe at her father's, whence they were driven ere long by another alarm. This time their flight was in darkness, through bogs and woods, stumbling against the stumps or each other. In their new abode they had more security. Parties of friends were out continually, keeping the enemy quiet; and sometimes in the night soldiers would ride up, and bid the negroes tell the ladies they might sleep soundly, for they were to maintain a patrol during the night.
At length the arrival of General Lincoln was announced; and he was joyfully welcomed by the inmates of the house. That night two or three hundred men were quartered on the plantation, some of the officers sleeping in the hall. They refused to have beds made. "Beds were not for soldiers; the floor or the earth served them as well as anywhere else." At daybreak they moved to camp. Another alarm occurred, and General Lincoln's defeat near Stono Ferry caused the retreat of the family to Willtown. Our writer's pen had thence to record only new aggressions and sufferings.
The siege and capitulation of Charleston brought the evils under which the land had groaned, to their height. The hardships endured by those within the beleaguered city - the gloomy resignation of hope - the submission to inevitable misfortune, have been described by abler chroniclers. The general feeling is expressed in a letter from a soldier to his wife, written twelve days before the event:
"Our affairs are daily declining; and not a ray of hope remains to assure us of our success. . . . I expect to have the liberty of soon returning to you; but the army must be made prisoners of war. This will give a rude shock to the independence of America; and a Lincolnade will be as common a term as a Burgoynade. . . . A mortifying scene must be encountered; the thirteen stripes will be levelled in the dust; and I owe my life to the clemency of the conqueror."
After the surrender, Mrs. Wilkinson visited the city, went on board the prison-ship, and drank coffee with the prisoners awaiting an exchange. She saw the departure of her friends who were driven into exile, and indulged herself occasionally in provoking her enemies by sarcastic sallies. "Once," she writes, "I was asked by a British officer to play the guitar.
'I cannot play; I am very dull.'
'How long do you intend to continue so, Mrs. Wilkinson ?'
'Until my countrymen return, sir!'
'Return as what, madam ? - prisoners or subjects ?'
'As conquerors, sir!'
He affected a laugh. 'You will never see that, madam!'
"'I live in hopes, sir, of seeing the thirteen stripes hoisted once more on the bastions of this garrison.'
"'Do not hope so; but come, give us a tune on the guitar.'
'I can play nothing but rebel songs.'
' Well, let us have one of them.'
' Not to-day - I cannot play - I will not play; besides, I suppose I should be put into the Provost for such a heinous crime.'
"I have often wondered, since I was not packed off, too; for I was very saucy, and never disguised my sentiments."
"One day," she continues, "Kitty and I were going to take a walk on the Bay, to get something we wanted. just as we had got our hats on, up ran one of the Billets into the dining-room, where we were.
'Your servant, ladies.'
'Your servant, sir.'
'Going out, ladies?'
'Only to take a little walk.'
He immediately turned about, and ran downstairs. I guessed for what. . . . He offered me his hand, or rather arm, to lean upon.
"'Excuse me, sir,' said I; 'I will support myself, if you please.'
"'No, madam, the pavements are very uneven; you may get a fall; do accept my arm.'
'Pardon me, I cannot."
'Come, you do not know what your condescension may do. I will turn rebel!'
"'Will you ?' said I, laughingly - 'Turn rebel first, and then offer your arm.'
"We stopped in another store, where were several British officers. After asking for the articles I wanted, I saw a broad roll of ribbon, which appeared to be of black and white stripes.
"'Go,' said I to the officer who was with us, and reckon In the stripes of that ribbon; see if they are thirteen !' (with an emphasis I spoke the word) - and he went, too!
'Yes, they are thirteen, upon my word, madam.'
"'Do hand it me' He did so; I took it, and found that it was a narrow black ribbon, carefully wound' round a broad white. I returned it to its place on the shelf.
"'Madam,' said the merchant, 'you can buy the black and white too, and tack them in stripes.'
"'By no means, sir; I would not have them slightly tacked, but firmly united.'
The above-mentioned officers sat on the counter kicking their heels. How they gaped at me when I said this, but the merchant laughed heartily."
Like many others, Mrs. Wilkinson refused to join in the amusements of the city while in possession of the British; but gave her energies to the relief of her friends. The women were the more active when military efforts were suspended. Many and ingenious were the contrivances they adopted, to carry supplies from the British garrison, which might be useful to the gallant defenders of their country. Sometimes cloth for a military coat, fashioned into an appendage to female attire, would be borne away, unsuspected by the vigilant guards whose business it was to Prevent smuggling, and afterwards converted into regimental shape. Boots, "a world too wide" for the delicate wearer, were often transferred to the partisan who could not procure them for himself. A horseman's helmet has been concealed under a well-arranged head-dress; and epaulettes delivered from the folds of a matron's simple cap. Other articles in demand for military use, more easily conveyed, were regularly brought away by some stratagem or other. Feathers and cockades thus secured, and presented by the fair ones as a trophy, had an inestimable value in the eyes of those who received them; and useful apparel was worn with the greater satisfaction, that it had not been conveyed without some risk on the donor's part.
It was after the return of Mrs. Wilkinson to Yonge's Island, that news was received of the glorious victory of Washington over Cornwallis. Her last letter which is of any public interest, contains congratulations on this event.
The old family mansion has been removed from the island. But the burial-ground is still held sacred; and the memory of Eliza Wilkinson is cherished in the hearts of her kindred.