Letters of Eliza Wilkinson (c. 1780)
LETTERS OF ELIZA WILKINSON (c. 1780)
Eliza Wilkinson, a South Carolina matron and patriot, experienced one of the most humiliating defeats suffered by the Americans during the Revolutionary War. British strategy in the South paid off with victories in South Carolina, including the spectacular fall of Charleston in the spring of 1780. In the aftermath, British soldiers and American Tories (the Loyalists, or as Wilkinson called them, "liars") taunted and abused the South Carolinians and looted their homes. Their avariciousness knew no bounds, according to the story related by Wilkinson in the first letter. What was worse, the Tories had no respect for elderly Americans (the "grey hairs"), and stole from them and humiliated them at will.
The second letter relates more details about the British occupation of South Carolina. Wherever there were large bodies of troops, smallpox and other diseases were not far behind. Wilkinson was lucky to escape the pox with her life and, she predicted, no scars. The American soldiers captured at South Carolina were being held in a prison ship. Wilkinson received a letter from two prisoners, who kept their spirits amid suffering, just as she did. Her solace was poetry and philosophy, and the conviction that justice would in the end reign supreme.
See also Revolution, American: Military History .
I seem to have an inexhaustible fund just now for letter writing; but it will amuse your leisure hours, and that hope encourages me to proceed. Without further preamble, I will present you with another scene, where my Father noted Mother were spectators, and also sufferers. It was likewise on the 3d of June that my Father, with an old man who lived a few miles from him, and whose head was silvered o'er with age, (one Mr. Byrant,) was sitting in the Piazza, when they saw a liar party of men—some in red, others in green, coming up to the house furiously; the moment they arrived, they jumped from their horses, and ran into the house with drawn swords and pistols, and began to curse and abuse Father and the other man very much; indeed, took his buckles from his shoes, searched his pockets, and took all they found there; they then went to search Mr. Bryant's pockets; he threw his top jacket aside, and producing his under-one, "Here," said he, "I'm a poor old man," (he was so, sure enough.) They searched but I believe found nothing, for by a lucky thought the "poor old man" saved several hundred pounds, by carelessly casting aside his top jacket, as if it had no pockets in it. They then went in the rooms up and down stairs, demolished two sets of drawers, and took all they could conveniently carry off. One came to search Mother's pockets too, (audacious fellow!) 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. &c. The mean wretch took it from her. They even took her two little children's caps, hats, &c. &c.; and when they took Mother's thread, &c. she asked them what they did with such things, which must be useless to them? "Why, Nancy would want them." They then began to insult Father again in the most abusive manner. "Aye," says one, "I told you yesterday how you'd be used if you did not take a protection! But you would not hear me; you would not do as I told you, now you see what you have got by it." "Why," said Mother, in a jeering way, "is going about plundering women and children, taking the State?" "I suppose you think you are doing your king a great piece of service by these actions, which are very noble, to be sure; but you are mistaken—'twill only enrage the people; I think you'd much better go and fight the men, than go about the country robbing helpless women and children; that would be doing something." "O! you are all, every one of you, rebels! and, old fellow," (to Father,) "I have a great mind to blow my pistol through your head." Another made a pass at him, (inhuman monsters—I have no patience to relate it,) with his sword, swearing he had "a great mind," too, to run him through the body.
What callous-hearted wretches must these be, thus to treat those who rather demanded their protection and support. Grey hairs have always commanded respect and reverence until now; but these vile creatures choose the aged and helpless for the objects of their insults and barbarity. But what, think you, must have been my Father's feelings at the time! used in such a manner. and not having it in his power to resent it; what a painful conflict must at that instant have filled his breast. He once or twice, (I heard him say afterwards,) was on the verge of attempting to defend himself and property; his breast was torn with the most violent agitations; but when he considered his helpless situation, and that certain death must ensue, he forbore, and silently submitted to their revilings and insults. It reminds me of poor old Priam, King of Troy, when the says,
As for my sons! I thank ye, Gods—'twas well—
Well—they have perished, for in fight they fell.
Who dies in youth and vigor, dies the best,
Cover'd with wounds, all honest, on the breast,
But when the Fates, in fury of their rage,
Spurn the hoar head of unresisting age,
This, this is misery, the last, the worst,
That man can feel—man fated to be curst.
I think those are the lines; it is a great while since I read them.
But to proceed. 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. Did you ever hear the like? Fine amends, to be sure! a bitter pill covered with gold, and so a shake of the hand was to make them ample satisfaction for all their sufferings! But the "iron hand of Justice" will overtake them sooner or later. Though slow, it is sure.
After they were gone, poor old Bryant began to bless his stars for saving his money, and to applaud himself for his lucky invention; he was too loud with it; Father admonished him to speak lower, for, should any of the servants about the house hear him, and another party come, he might stand a chance to lose it after all; but still the old man kept chatting on, when lo! another company of horsemen appeared in view: the poor soul was panic-struck, he looked aghast, and became mute: these were M'Girth's men, who had just left us. They did not behave quite so civil to Mother as they did to us; for they took sugar, flour, butter, and such things from her; but not much. These particulars I had from Mother. And now, my dear, I'll conclude here; I expect company to spend the day, so will defer ending my long story till the next leisure hour, and will then bare another epistolary chat with you. Adieu.
Mount Royal, May 19, 1781.
Hang dull life, 'tis all a folly,
Why should we be melancholy?
Aye, why should we? Does it answer one good purpose? or will it be any alleviation to our present misfortune? No. Very well, then, I will e'en banish it, and make the best of what I cannot prevent. To indulge melancholy, is to afflict ourselves, and make the edge of calamity more keen and cutting; so I will endeavor to maintain a calm, let what will happen. I will summon philosophy, fortitude, patience, and resignation to my aid; and sweet hope, which never forsakes us, will be one chief support. Let us, by anticipation, be happy; and though we may have cause to mourn, let it not be with despair.
I have just got the better of the small-pox, thanks be to God for the same. My face is finely ornamented, and my nose honored with thirteen spots. I must add, that I am pleased they will not pit, for as much as I revere the number, I would not choose to have so conspicuous a mark. I intend, in a few days, to introduce my spotted face in Charlestown. I hear there are a number of my friends and acquaintances to be exiled, and I must see them before they are. Oh! Mary, who can forbear to execrate these barbarous, insulting red-coats? I despise them most cordially and hope their day of suffering is not far off. I have received a long epistle from on board the prison ship; it is dated from the "Pack Horse, or Wilful Murder," and signed by two of its inhabitants. They first congratulate me on my recovery from the small-pox, and then proceed to a detail of their sufferings, and a description of their present habitation. But I am very much pleased to see by their style, that they bear all with fortitude, and are still in high spirits. I have also had a letter from Capt.****; he advises me to take care whom I speak to, and not to be very saucy; for the two Miss Sarazens were put in Provost, and very much insulted for some trifle or other. Did you ever hear the like! Do the Britons imagine that they will conquer America by such actions? If they do, they will find themselves much mistaken. I will answer for that. We may be led, but we never will be driven! He also writes me, that the Britons were making great preparations to celebrate the anniversary of the day that Charlestown capitulated, and that, what with the grand parade and one thing or other, a poor rebel had not the least chance to walk the streets without being insulted; but, in opposition to all that, he had hoisted a very large union in his hat, and would brave it out; that the rebel ladies were obliged to compose their phizzes before they dared to venture in the streets; and concludes in as high spirits as he began. How it pleases me to see our prisoners bear it as they do. They live in the greatest harmony together, and are in high favor with the ladies; which, I dare say, gives the proud conquerors the heart-burn. Bless me! here is a whole troop of British horse coming up to the house; get into my bosom, letter;—how I tremble! I won't finish it until I return from Charlestown. Adieu, till then.
SOURCE: Wilkinson, Eliza. Letters During the Invasion and Possession of Charleston, S.C., by the British in the Revolutionary War. New York: S. Colman, 1839.