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Ultimate Insensitivity

The letters of James Griffin of South Carolina appear in A Gentleman and an Officer, by Judith McArthur and Orville Vernon Burton published by Oxford University Press in 1996. The book is valuable for it’s insights into the thinking of those who consider themselves moral but are unable to identify with the motives and choices of people who look different or are from other parts of the world. A problem not ended with the Civil War.

When he joined the Confederate Army, James B. Griffin was 36 years old, had 1500 acres of South Carolina plantation land in Edgefield District of South Carolina a few miles north of Augusta, Georgia and owned 61 slaves.

He wrote to his wife frequently and always with great affection. Typical is his letter on June 14, 1861. “My darling wife, I have a few minutes to spare and I propose to devote them to my Darling wife. ..My best love to all the Children Kiss them every day for me. Tell them to be good children.”

The next day, he wrote, “Abram has just arrived here bringing me a letter from Mrs Lanham requesting me to inform her when we will likely move to Virginia.”

Two slaves, Abram and Ned, were with Griffin in the Confederate Army. Ned’s role was care of Griffin’s horses and Abram had a variety of tasks, culminating in providing for the officer mess of their regiment.

In late January, Griffin wrote, “Ned has been laid up a few days with a bad cold. I hope he will be up soon—Abram has a cold but is still up—He is a very fine boy, a general favourite with all the staff.”

In early April 1862. James Griffin wrote, “It has now come to my turn to cater for the mess. We have seven in the mess, and we take it by turns—each one catering for two months. My turn commenced yesterday. The way I manage, is to give Abram money and he provides for us. He is a first rate Boy—I think more of him than I ever did. …To give you an idea of the price of provisions—Abram has just come in and reported that he paid $1.75 for half bushel of sweet potatoes and the same amount for a turkey here….

On May21, 1862, James Griffin wrote, “My Darling I have a piece of bad news to write you—I fear I have lost Abram. He left me while I was at Yorktown, and I haven’t heard a word from him since. It is very singular and I cant account for it. He has been a good boy and a faithful one to me most of the time, since I have been in service. And only gave me cause of complaint a few times after he commenced to cater for our Mess, which was the 12th of April—I gave him money and made him buy provisions for us. He seemed to like it well at first. But grew tired before long, as provisions became scarcer. I had to scold him on two or three occasions, and once while at Ashland gave him a light flogging which was the only time I had struck him since he left home—He left me on the 28th of April. He went out as usual to buy provisions, and got a pass to cross the York river, and he saw negros coming from over there, with poultry and such things as could not be bought where we were. This is the last I heard of him—I think he was decoyed off by some one, after he left—for I offered him a $20.00 bill that morning, but he declined, saying he had as much money as he would need for that day—I have never informed you of this before, because, I have always believed he would turn up again—and indeed I think so still—but he may not.

I am sorry he was such a fool—I’ll bet he will always be sorry for it. I have been pretty hard up lately for a servant—for since he has been gone, Ned has had the Measles, another singular fact—and he isn’t well of them yet.

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