Slave Life at Appomattox Plantation
Though Richard Eppes was only one of the many generations of his family who owned enslaved people, his papers are the most detailed regarding the names, lives, ages, and other information on these African-Americans. Richard Eppes was the master of the estate from 1844 until his death in 1896. He actively managed the enslaved from the autumn of 1851 until the Civil War shattered the existence of American slavery.
Richard Eppes’ plantation was divided into four major farms which were called Appomattox, Bermuda Hundred, Eppes’ Island, and Hopewell. The slaves performed the hard labor on this estate and as it grew so too did the slave population. By 1860, with these three properties along with other scattered landholdings around the village of City Point, this included his house, Eppes owned more than 2,200 acres of land and 127 men, women, and children who lived and worked on his property.
The slaves of Dr. Richard Eppes had a variety of tasks and duties. The majority of the slaves were field hands. They were to work from sunrise until sunset ordinarily but occasionally longer particularly in planting and harvesting seasons. The field hands consumed their breakfast and mid-day meal in the fields and the season regulated how long they were given to eat their food.
The work of the field hands consisted of rotating the planting of wheat, corn, clover, peas, oats, and Chinese sugar cane. Planting was a labor intensive job that just did not consist of putting the seeds into the earth, but also grubbing, ditching, weeding, and applying manure, imported guano, plaster and lime to all the fields. Dr. Eppes preferred deep plowing methods and told his overseers, foremen, and head plow men that he wished for the fields to be plowed four times before planting the seeds. The work continued through all seasons as there was always some task to be done. The slaves were supervised by a slave foreman and a white overseer that Eppes hired. The foreman was to blow his horn every morning at daybreak, except for Sundays, and be at work by sunrise. The foreman was to be punished it he punished other enslaved laborers or if he failed to blow his horn and be at duty by sunrise. Overseers, who worked under contracts negotiated at the end of a year for the following year, were allowed to strike members of the enslaved community. Eppes like many other slave owners noted frequent dissatisfaction with the overseers.
Domestic servants have traditionally been thought of as having it easier than field hands. However, they were allowed little time to themselves as they were always to be ready to assist Dr. Eppes, his first wife, Josephine and his second wife, Elizabeth; their children, or guests of the family. The work of the domestic staff included preparing food, cleaning rooms, setting up new furnishings, painting, smoking ham, making dairy products, maintaining gardens, and generally seeing to the overall look of the house, outbuildings, and yard.
Food and clothing were issued to the slaves. The Code of Laws stated that the allowance was to be a “peck and half of meal for the men and a peck for the women apiece. Two pounds and half of pork for the men and two pounds for the women and boys over fourteen apiece. To the Foreman and Head Plougher will be given three pounds of pork apiece.” Dr. Eppes later increased the food allowance due to the recommendations of Dr. Virginius Harrison, the family physician and doctor for the slaves. Thus in 1859 the increase was for men to receive five pounds of meat and women to receive four pounds of meat every two weeks along with one quart of molasses and six herrings. The plow boys were put on the men’s ration allowance and all children who were three years old or older would take two pounds of bacon along with a quart of molasses and eight quarts of corn meal every two weeks. The enslaved community was allowed to raise ducks and chickens and have gardens on ¼ acre of land in which their master purchased cabbage and snap peas for them.
Clothing was issued to the field hands twice a year: summer and winter. A suit of clothes or a dress was issued and once a year the enslaved received a pair of shoes. Every two years, the slaves were given a blanket.
Unfortunately, we do not know the day-to-day family life of the Eppes family slaves. Only two slaves owned by the Eppes family are known to have been interviewed and do not share their daily lifestyles. Like on some other slaveholding estates, the enslaved people owned by Richard Eppes could pursue their own activities in the evenings, on Saturday afternoons, on Sundays and holidays like Christmas. This is the time in which they likely tended to their poultry, gardens, repaired clothing, rested, cooked, and engaged in other social activities. A major limitation to our understanding of the enslaved community is due to limited surviving archaeological sites. The family’s financial straights in the early twentieth century led to the sale of the Hopewell and Bermuda Hundred Farms, destroying the archaeological record of the slave quarters there. Archaeology at Eppes’ Island (the only part of the former plantation that was not sold) may one day reveal more about what occurred in the quarters after sunset and before sunrise.
One part of the slave experience however that is not very present at Appomattox Plantation is the act of running away. Richard Eppes had no problems during the 1850s with runaways but there were other ways that the enslaved community asserted control over their situation. Eppes recorded truancy in labor, feigned illnesses, and theft of food. Most of the punishments for those people consisted of a reduction of rations or a whipping.
The Civil War however forever changed the labor system of Richard Eppes and his family. In 1862, most of the Eppes’ slaves ran off the plantation as they entered Union lines and took control over their destinies as freed people. The majority of the families did not return to the plantation in the aftermath of the war. One thing was clear to Richard Eppes in the spring of 1865 and that was that for him to succeed as an agriculturalist, he would have to negotiate payment for services rendered.Learn more about the enslaved community and about several of the slave families who lived on the plantation.
Did You Know?
Union Brevet Brigadier General Frederick Winthrop was Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop's sixth great-grandson. Winthrop was mortally wounded at the Battle of Five Forks on April 1, 1865. (Petersburg National Battlefield)