1859: Stephen Decatur Boyd to John Franklin Boyd

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A street scene in Charleston in 1860

This letter was written by 38 year-old Stephen Decatur Boyd (1821-1881), the son of John Franklin Boyd (1778-1833) and Frances Woodward (1784-1871). Stephen was married to his cousin, Margaret A. Northcraft (1829-1861), and resided in southern Warren County, Virginia, where he managed a 400 acre plantation on “Gooney Run” and with his brother-in-law, Luke Woodward, operated a mercantile at Rectortown in Farquier county. He wrote this letter to his brother, John Franklin Boyd (1817-1860), while visiting Charleston, South Carolina, on his way to Florida.

During the Civil War, Stephen served in Co. F, 3rd Regiment Virginia Infantry (Henley’s Local Defense). A biography of Boyd appearing in the 1924 History of Virginia, Vol. 6, states that Boyd served as a courier for General Lee, “He carried a message from General Lee to Vicksburg during the siege of that city, and frequently was a dispatch bearer from General Lee to the War Department at Richmond.” [p. 14]

In his letter, Stephen records his impressions of Charleston—its landscape, its slave population, its commerce, and its militia. He contends that the slaves “are far better off than the laboring classes of the North and much better off than they would be were they set free here”—an oft repeated “truism” perpetrated by southern whites prior to the Civil War.


Charleston, South Carolina
3rd November 1859

Jno. F. Boyd, Esq.
Dear Brother,

Remembering that you charged me with not answering your letter to me while North, I thought the charge should no longer stand against me. You will, therefore, receive this not only as an answer to your last to me, but also as a tax levied upon you for another. Having already detailed an account of our trip to this place in notes to brothers Wm. & Henry, I deem it unnecessary to recapitulate what is therein contained but refer you to them.

Charleston is a considerable city, numbering some 65,000 inhabitants, is situated on a level plain extending north from its beautiful bay between the Cooper & [Ashley] Rivers about 3 or 4 miles. Its principal streets (King & Meeting &c.) running nearly north & south, the other cross streets mostly extend from river to river. The S. E. boundary of the city is formed by a fine Battery from which the whole Bay can be raked in case of an invasion & which forms a delightful promenade, it being nearly a quarter of a mile in length, overlooking one of the most beautiful bays in the U. S. here you have a full view of the shipping.

Cast your eye along the wharf, you behold thousands upon 1000’s of bales of cotton and tierces of rice, ships with sails set wafted by the “summer breeze.” Look further out [and] your gaze meets two strong forts—one upon either side of the inlet—and from their positions & strength you are at once convinced that South Carolina has done her duty in fortifying her most important city.

Extend the gaze and your vision rests upon the waters of the great Atlantic. It would be impossible for me to describe the grand magnificence of this scene, enlivened as it is by the songs of the happiest race (I mean the slave population). I am free to say under the heavens, scarcely any job of work is accomplished that is not accompanied with one of those enlivening songs which sometimes characterizes the “compile” and a broad grin denoting a contented mind and happy countenance. I knew that most of the drudgery was performed by slave labor & that much of the lighter labors were also performed by them. Yet I was surprised to find the bars, saloons, cigar stores, & indeed 9/10 of all the duties of the communities discharged by them. In passing through the  market this morning, I found all the marketing sold & bought by negroes. More polite salesmen I have never seen anywhere.

You ask what the whites do. I answer, take care of the negroes, plan & sweat for their interests. I do not wonder that they refused to join Old [John] Brown [at Harper’s Ferry] & that they are so much in censure against him for they are beginning to learn a truism—that they are far better off than the laboring classes of the North and much better off than they would be were they set free here.

The weather is so exceedingly hot that we do not care to go farther south just now. There is a daily line of steamboats to Florida so we can go any day. I see that we are to have the pleasure of the company of Judy, Douglas & his lady. Margaret is doing remarkably well, not having experienced any inconvenience from her trip thus far. She rather dreads the sea voyage thinking she will be seasick but we will stop at Fernandina (pronounced Fer-nan-de’-na). The trip will only be about 15 hours long and with a smooth sea will be very pleasant. So we bid farewell to winter & if it keeps as hot as it is now, I shall want to get back to the mountains.

I do not know whether I shall pass or not as strangers (northerners) are taken up on all occasions & no time allowed them to produce their proof. To one fellow from Alexandria, Virginia, was given his walking or trotting papers for they do things here on the run. They have their militia on the run—the zouave plan; a more beautiful system I have never seen. Indeed, the best drilling I have seen anywhere was here. They march on the run, never break a line whether by file, by actions, platoon, or the whole company, and are always in dress. Our Virginia military officers would do well to take lessons here. I suppose the Virginia Military Institute does well but I presume does not employ the same system. I had never seen it nor heard of it before. So much for my ignorance. When I write you, of course I write for the benefit of the children too, Do you not think me childish? I close remaining as ever your brother, — Stephen

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