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Upheaval and Freedom Come To Middleton Place

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Upheaval and Freedom Come to Middleton Place

On February 23rd, 1865, as the crumbling ruins of Middleton Place, the family seat of generations of wealthy plantation owners and slaveholders, burned, a whole community of people was thrust into chaos, uncertainty, and maybe even hope for the future. The 56th New York Regiment of Volunteers had come through and presented the Union’s message in no uncertain terms, and in the following days they moved on, leaving the formerly enslaved community at Middleton Place with the experience of a sudden and violent emancipation. The scenes that played out on this landscape – burning, destruction, and turmoil – echoed throughout the South on plantation after plantation in the year leading up to the end of the Civil War. Here at the home of Williams Middleton, who had long since evacuated with his family, a surgeon from Massachusetts bore witness to the range of emotions that accompanied the emancipation of previously enslaved people. Dr. Henry Orlando Marcy, attached to the 35th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops, was in attendance both before and after the destruction – he first describes the tumultuous scene of emancipation:

Continued on to [Middleton Place] which I found splendidly located in the midst of extensive pleasure grounds on a slight eminence.  All here was confusion. [The slaves] had heard the news from their friends and they were making ready to leave.  [Williams Middleton] had left about a week previous . . . [His] overseer had soon followed and for some days the Col[ored] people had been alone. Everything was in confusion.  The house was strewed with articles and all about the grounds things were scattered. . . Met the driver and learned much of interest.  The Colored people flocked around me and gave numerous demonstrations of joy.  All wanted to ‘shake hands.’  Guess this is a custom of theirs.  The Driver a very intelligent man, said he was placed in charge of a [party and teams] to go up country but he had contrived to get away with the whole party and return.

Upon his return the following day, Dr. Marcy expressed sorrow for the destruction of the built environment – especially the Library – at Middleton Place, but we can infer that his concern was also extended to the people. He came to “do what I can to repair the damage done” – and he wasn’t just talking about buildings. According to Dr. Marcy:


…the col.[ored] people were robbed indiscriminately. My first object was to get the col[ored] people together and advise them what to do – find there is a schooner and several flats here and as they are all determined to leave I advise them to load the boats and proceed to the city. . . Accompanied by the driver I rode down to the [Horse Savannah / Jerry Hill] five miles away.  Here found about 150 slaves. Called them together and made them a little talk…The col[ored] people seem happy and are making ready to leave for town.[1]


It would seem that even an emancipating Army included those who would rob people who had spent their lifetimes under the yoke of slavery. As for Dr Marcy, a likely abolitionist, he was able to offer a life-changing opportunity to one particular formerly enslaved woman from Middleton Place. Priscilla Johnson (or Johnston), who was born enslaved to the Middletons in 1846, had been assigned to work in the gardens at Middleton Place before the 56th New York arrived. Dr. Marcy had been looking to hire a nurse-companion for his mother back in Cambridge, MA, and a formerly enslaved driver, Isaac, recommended Priscilla for the job. Priscilla, newly free and able for perhaps the first time in her life to make a decision about her future, agreed to go with Dr. Marcy. After Marcy’s mother passed away, Priscilla chose to remain in the North, marrying a freedman – Madison Robinson – of Virginia in 1872. The couple had three daughters of their own, and Priscilla would go on to nursemaid for at least two more families, whose children nicknamed her “Gar”.[2]

Often, plantations saw the retention or return of their previously enslaved tenants – the reasons behind this were myriad, not the least of which is the ancestral connection to a place that comes with generations of families being born there, whether in oppression or in freedom. But it is clear from the descriptions that Dr. Marcy leaves behind that there were plenty of people who were willing and able to leave this place and to never look back – Priscilla Johnson Robinson included.

The trauma of the destruction of one’s home, coupled with the trauma of being enslaved from generation to generation was clearly enough to cause those with newfound freedom to exercise their agency in the most overt way – to move away, on the very day that emancipation came. The Civil War raged for another two months, but for people like Priscilla, the time to take the future into their own hands was when the opportunity presented itself – with the destruction and chaos wrought by the 56th New York. One might wonder if she took stories of her childhood with her, to the families she cared for in the North. One might wonder what stories her descendants still tell of Priscilla’s journey to freedom, which began here at the site of her oppression.




Author’s Note: While Priscilla may not have looked back, her living descendants have. Reaching out for the roots of their ancestral home, Priscilla’s family has been in contact with Middleton Place Foundation, visited the National Historic Landmark, and attended the 2011 Reunion of Descendants of Middleton Place. We look forward to spending more time connecting with her family, and through them, with Priscilla.

[1] A photocopy of Dr. Marcy’s Diary can be found at the South Carolina Historical Society and at the Middleton Place Archives.

[2] 2008, Doyle, Barbara, Mary Edna Sullivan, and Tracey Todd. Beyond the Fields: Slavery at Middleton Place. Middleton Place Foundation, 66-67.

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