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- Bricks Without Straw - 6/87 -
"So you have, and I know you don't want to leave them."
"No more I don't, Mahs'r," earnestly.
"And you need not if you'll do as I want you to. See here, Nimbus, if you'll do this I will promise that you and your family never shall be separated, and I'll give you fifty dollars now and a hundred dollars when you come back, if you'll just keep those other fool-niggers from trying--mind' I say _trying_--to run away and so getting shot. There's no such thing as getting to the Yankees, and it would be a heap worse for them if they did, but you know they _are_ such fools they might try it and get killed--which would serve them right, only I should have to bear the loss."
"All right, Mahs'r, I do the best I can," said Nimbus.
"That's right," said the master.
"Here are fifty dollars," and he handed him a Confederate bill of that denomination (gold value at that time, $3.21).
Mr. Desmit did not feel entirely satisfied when Nimbus and his twenty fellow-servants went off upon the train to work for the Confederacy. However, he had done all he could except to warn the guards to be very careful, which he did not neglect to do.
Just forty days afterward a ragged, splashed and torn young ebony Samson lifted the flap of a Federal officer's tent upon one of the coast islands, stole silently in, and when he saw the officer's eyes fixed upon him. asked,
"Want ary boy, Mahs'r?"
The tone, as well as the form of speech, showed a new-comer. The officer knew that none of the colored men who had been upon the island any length of time would have ventured into his presence unannounced, or have made such an inquiry.
"Where did you come from?" he asked.
"Ober to der mainlan'," was the composed answer.
"How did you get here?"
"Come in a boat."
"Where did you live?"
"Up de kentry--Horsford County."
"How did you come down here?" "Ben wukkin' on de bres'wuks."
"The dickens you have!"
"How did you get a boat, then?"
"Jes' tuk it--dry so."
"Anybody with you?"
"And you came across the Sound alone in an open boat?"
"Yes, Mahs'r; an' fru' de swamp widout any boat."
"I should say so," laughed the officer, glancing at his clothes. "What did you come here for?"
"Didn't they tell you you'd be worse off with the Yankees than you were with them?"
"Didn't you believe them?"
"What do you want to do?"
"Fight the rebs?"
"Wal, I kin du it."
"What's your name?"
"Nimbus? Good name--ha! ha: what else?"
"Nothing else? What was your old master's name?"
"Well, then, that's yours, ain't it--your surname--Nimbus Desmit?"
"Reckon not, Mahs'r."
"No? Why not?"
"Same reason his name ain't Nimbus, I s'pose."
"Well," said the officer, laughing, "there may be something in that; but a soldier must have two names. Suppose I call you George Nimbus?"
"Yer kin call me jes' what yer choose, sah; but my name's Nimbus all the same. No Gawge Nimbus, nor ennything Nimbus, nor Nimbus ennything--jes' Nimbus; so. Nigger got no use fer two names, nohow."
The officer, perceiving that it was useless to argue the matter further, added his name to the muster-roll of a regiment, and he was duly sworn into the service of the United States as George Nimbus, of Company C, of the---Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and was counted one of the quota which the town of Great Barringham, in the valley of the Housatuck, was required to furnish to complete the pending call for troops to put down rebellion. By virtue of this fact, the said George Nimbus became entitled to the sum of four hundred dollars bounty money offered by said town to such as should give themselves to complete its quota of "the boys in blue," in addition to his pay and bounty from the Government. So, if it forced on him a new name, the service of freedom was not altogether without compensatory advantages.
Thus the slave Nimbus was transformed into the "contraband" George Nimbus, and became not only a soldier of fortune, but also the representative of a patriotic citizen of Great Barringham, who served his country by proxy, in the person of said contraband, faithfully and well until the end of the war, when the South fell--stricken at last most fatally by the dark hands which she had manacled, and overcome by their aid whose manhood she had refused to acknowledge.
NUNC PRO TUNC.
The first step in the progress from the prison-house of bondage to the citadel of liberty was a strange one. The war was over. The struggle for autonomy and the inviolability of slavery, on the part of the South, was ended, and fate had decided against them. With this arbitrament of war fell also the institution which had been its cause. Slavery was abolished--by proclamation, by national enactment, by constitutional amendment--ay, by the sterner logic which forbade a nation to place shackles again upon hands which had been raised in her defence, which had fought for her life and at her request. So the slave was a slave no more. No other man could claim his service or restrain his volition. He might go or come, work or play, so far as his late master was concerned.
But that was all. He could not contract, testify, marry or give in marriage. He had neither property, knowledge, right, or power. The whole four millions did not possess that number of dollars or of dollars' worth. Whatever they had acquired in slavery was the master's, unless he had expressly made himself a trustee for their benefit. Regarded from the legal standpoint it was, indeed, a strange position in which they were. A race despised, degraded, penniless, ignorant, houseless, homeless, fatherless, childless, nameless. Husband or wife there was not one in four millions. Not a child might call upon a father for aid, and no man of them all might lift his hand in a daughter's defence. Uncle and aunt and cousin, home, family--none of these words had any place in the freedman's vocabulary. Right he had, in the abstract; in the concrete, none. Justice would not hear his voice. The law was still color-blinded by the past.
The fruit of slavery--its first ripe harvest, gathered with swords and bloody bayonets, was before the nation which looked ignorantly on the fruits of the deliverance it had wrought. The North did not comprehend its work; the South could not comprehend its fate. The unbound slave looked to the future in dull, wondering hope.
The first step in advance was taken neither by the nation nor by the freedmen. It was prompted by the voice of conscience, long hushed and hidden in the master's breast. It was the protest of Christianity and morality against that which it had witnessed with complacency for many a generation. All at once it was perceived to be a great enormity that four millions of Christian people, in a Christian land, should dwell together without marriage rite or family tie. While they were slaves, the fact that they might be bought and sold had hidden this evil from the eye of morality, which had looked unabashed upon the unlicensed freedom of the quarters and the enormities of the barracoon. Now all at once it was shocked beyond expression at the domestic relations of the freedmen.
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