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.