Six Months Among the Secessionists

Book Excerpt

Background Notes

Sarah L. Palmer, a native of Massachusetts, narrates her experience in the Confederate States as a teacher in Knoxville, Tennessee during the Civil War. In Palmer’s Six Months among the Secessionists, published at the beginning of the war, Miss Palmer portrays herself as a strong, courageous woman during a period of misery and hardship at the hands of secessionists throughout her travels in the South. Although Palmer claims to be giving nothing more than a simple reiteration of her experience in this narrative, she proves to be in support of the Union. For instance, she validates the stereotypical notion of corrupt southern secessionists while speaking highly of those individuals in the South who are against the Rebellion. Her lover, Clarence, and Mrs. Bertrand, the wife of a southern plantation owner, serve as prime examples of this type.

In her narrative, Palmer remains focused on the southern home front. In the beginning of her adventure, Palmer gives her readers insight into the dangers of civilian life in the South during the “Great Rebellion” as she describes atrocious acts committed upon those who were believed to be Unionists. Palmer explains that she was able to flee from her own tortures as a Yankee woman by the Southern regulators. As she was in hiding, Palmer lived as a slave woman, and as a result, readers gain insight into the slaves’ own struggles under the ownership of southern plantation owners. Palmer presents the slaves as kind, gentle-hearted beings undeserving of their current position. Finally, Palmer ends her story in an optimistic fashion as she and other women are rescued by Union soldiers.

Transcription of Primary Source



A native of Pennsylvania, who, at the opening of the Great Southern Rebellion, was teaching school in Knoxville, the home of


In this work Miss Palmer thrillingly depicts the many startling adventures she met with in her flight from State to State and town to town of the Confederate States. Also her pursuit by her disappointed Rebel Suitor….


…justice compels me to say, that there are many exceptions to the accusation that the Southern people are supercilious, unprincipled, tyrannical and cruel. At this very time there are noble-hearted, patriotic men in the South; who, although at present unable to stem the torrent of rebellion that rages so madly about them, only await the opportunity to give their fortunes, and, if necessary, their lives, in defense of the glorious old banner that floated over Washington and our fathers of 1776. However, I leave the truth of my assertion to be proved by the simple and unbiased narration of my own experience….

On the following morning we reached Loudon, and took boarding with a friend of Clarence’s, who, although thus befriending us, (for the place was filled with Secessionists, and Mr. Burr was noted as an enthusiastic Unionist, while I, of course, would be hated on account of being from Massachusetts,) warned us to keep as retired as possible, and not to remain too long in the town at any rate. During the anxious, weary day Clarence and I canvassed our hopes and prospects, and the conclusions to which we were forced were not at all promising, for, turn in whatever direction we might, there was  nothing but Secession and Southern Rights. The fever was so high that argument was in vain; it was either “Secession,” or “Union,” and the advocates of the latter cause met with nothing less than the most brutal usage, and even death. We saw from our own window, an old, white-headed man hung up to a tree before his own door, and only saved on account of his age. His offense was warmly remonstrating with a crowd of ruffians, who were savagely beating a man supposed to be loyal to the United States’ government….

…By the time we came to Fountain Hill, a town within eight or nine miles of the State line between Tennessee and Georgia, I succeeded in making myself believe that our path was no more to be crossed by our enemy. But here we found the truth of the old adage fully proved, that “there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.”

As the train stopped, a great commotion was raised outside; and, among yells and cheers for Jeff. Davis, the Stars and Bars, and the Southern Confederacy, we heard the cry raised:

“Lynch the d- d Yankees! Hang ‘em! Shoot ‘em down!”

Upon this a rush was made at the car immediately behind ours, and we saw several persons dragged out and hustled away. What was done with them we did not see, for, at this moment, the whistle sounded, and the train moved off. It would be utterly impossible for me to describe the shudder that seized me at this juncture, as I again beheld Alfred Poindexter, this time at the head of a squad of men armed with rifles. His quick glance fell upon Clarence and myself, and, instantly saying something to his vile comrades, he pointed toward the car in which we were seated. The next moment, simultaneously with the reports of the pieces, several balls came whistling through the car, only one of which, however, did any serious damage, striking and breaking the arm of a sweet, innocent little girl, who, at the time, was sleeping soundly on her mother’s lap, all unconscious of the turmoil around her….

After leaving Dalton, nothing of much importance occurred until we came to Adairsville, and here fell upon me the heaviest stroke of my life. As the passengers alighted, they were surrounded by a gang of armed, and half-intoxicated desperadoes, calling themselves, “REGULATORS.” The leader of these miscreants, bearing in one hand a small Secession flag, and in the other our National colors, union down and craped, put the question to every passenger:

“Which flag do you go for?”

With my heart sinking with fear, I watched Clarence’s features. They were calm and exceedingly pale, but they flushed brightly as the ruffianly interrogator stepped to my betrothed, and, recognizing him, said, with an oath, as he was about to pass to the next one:

“I needn’t ask you, Mr. Burr, I know you’re a Southern Rights’ man, to the back bone.”

“I am a Southern Rights’ man, gentlemen,” responded Clarence, “but only under the flag for which Southern blood was shed in the Revolution.”

“What!” retorted the leader, scowling, “ain’t you Secesh? Are you a renegade, a traitor to the South?”

Whatever answer poor, dear Clarence commenced to these insolent questions, was lost in the shout that was raised by the gang.

“A traitor to the South! a renegade! down with him! kill him! kill him!”

In his enthusiasm, Clarence must have forgotten himself, for, seizing the flag that was craped, from the ruffian’s hand before him, he tore from about it the crape, drew a revolver, and, waving the flag above his head, shouted in a Stentorian voice:

“These are my colors! and the colors of every true Southerner! The Stars and Stripes forever!”

Scarcely had he uttered these words, when the owner of the two flags struck him a violent blow in the face, that fairly staggered him. The next moment the villain lay groveling in his death agonies at my very feet. Never, never shall I forget the scene that followed. A simultaneous rush was made upon Clarence, who, still waving aloft the flag, shouted:

“These are my colors! Come on cowards!”

Several pistol reports rang from the crowd, and my lover sank to his knees, on which another rush was made upon him by his dastardly assailants, who endeavored to bear him to the ground, and trample him beneath their feet. By this last onset I had been separated from him, and, during the fearful struggle that succeeded, I could only now and then catch a glimpse of his pale, blood-streaked face, and the flag, which at intervals he waved above him, only, however, to be stamped immediately to earth again….

“Brave Knights!” cried I, in the rage that consumed me, “do you fear a frail woman? Come on, and you shall see that a daughter of the old Bay State knows how to die!”

“Hip! hip fur the Yankee gal!” yelled one of the villains. “Don’t kill her, Bill, don’t!” he continued, as a companion was in the act of discharging a pistol at me, “Don’t kill her! Let’s take her prisoner, and put her to the tortures!”

What was meant by “the tortures” I could at first only conjecture, but, upon arriving at the designated place, I soon found out the import of the term. Amid the jeers, insults and indignities of a motley assemblage of spectators, many of whom I blush to write were women, I was stripped of my apparel from the waist upward, and then being tied to the tail of a rikety old cart, to which was hitched a miserable horse, I was dragged twice round the field. Some one then proposed that the Yankee witch should be lashed to death, while another yelled for tar and feathers, and yet another clamored that I ought to be burned. In the midst of this confusion a fourth called out that I should be sold….

I had often, during the preceding years of my residence in the South, heard of secret organizations among the slaves, but never, until now, had I come upon the proof of the fact. After a few moments’ consideration I decided to confide my safety to my dusky friends, and accordingly replied:

“Sampson, I believe and trust you. I am ready at any moment to fly, for I certainly can be no worse off than I am now.”

“An’ ye won’t ax no foolish queshuns, hyah?” persisted Sampson.

“I will not….”

With the close of the sentence Sampson was gone, and I was alone with his wife, who immediately entered upon the task assigned to her. It may be inferred that the process or ceremony was a lengthy one, from the fact that it was completed only a little while before Sampson came back, which was hard on midnight. I would like to give a full detail of all that passed on that eventful evening, but I am solemnly bound never to betray what I then learned. This much I can and will say, however, IF THE WHITES IN THE SOUTH KNEW EVERYTHING THAT IS GOING ON, AND HAS BEEN GOING ON FOR YEARS, AROUND THEM, THEY WOULD NOT SLEEP SOUNDLY IN THEIR BEDS FOR ANY TWO CONSECUTIVE HOURS….

Shortly after midnight, Chloe and I, closely following Sampson, emerged from the hut and took our way across the fields, thus commencing our first night’s journey toward freedom. We continued steadily and silently on our course until within an hour or two of daylight , halting only at such times as our stalwart guide deemed it prudent to do so. We, by this time, had reached the bank of a stream that fell into the Alabama river. Taking his position close to the trunk of a huge old tree which grew on the very edge of the creek, Sampson gave a shrill, peculiar call, repeating it three times at regular intervals. Five minutes perhaps elapsed ere the signals were answered, and then there came faintly through the still night air, several sharp whistles. Silence ensued for a little while, and then, like a dim, gliding phantom, a light boat or canoe approached the spot where we stood.

The oarsman, also a negro, used his oars with remarkable dexterity and caution, and, without any apparent effort, guided the frail vessel noiselessly to our feet. Sampson bent down, seized the boat, and said something in low tones to its occupant, who answered him in the same cautious manner….

For nearly a month we continued thus to make our way onward, assisted invariably by the negroes! At the expiration of the time named, we found ourselves in the middle of the State of South Carolina, safely hidden as we thought, in the midst of a swamp close to the Santee river….

A moment or so later we were out of each other’s sight; but I soon became so fatigued with my extraordinary exertions that I could not go no farther, and so, with what little strength I had left, I managed to climb into the foliage of a large tree. Here I had been about two hours, when I heard now and then the “singing of the hounds,” a term used to express the peculiar cry of those fearful animals when they have got the full scent of a trail. As these ominous sounds grew momentarily more distinct, I began to give myself up for lost, for I felt sure it was my track they were upon. I had not long to wait, however, for a settlement of my fears, for, within a minute, the ferocious, howling brutes, six or eight in number, bounded into sight. With redoubled cries they came on directly toward the tree in which I was hidden….

The bloodhounds were at the foot of the tree before these words had left my lips, but they paused not for an instant. On they bounded, and the next moment almost, were out of sight. It was another trail they were on and I was spared….

…Here, however, the good fortune, that, with the exceptions mentioned heretofor, had attended me, failed, and I fell a prisoner into the hands of a gang of villains, styling themselves the “JEFF. DAVIS UNION BREAKERS.” They were marching about the country, dragging with them an old brass field piece, and endeavoring to induce young men to join their ranks….[  

One day while I was concealed in the hut of a slave on the plantation of C. Bertrand, Esq., I was startled by the entrance of a negro, who, drawing aside Aunt Debby, an aged slave woman, told her that the overseer of the next plantation had by accident seen me the evening before going through a neighboring patch of woods with Bob, her son, He had watched us and seen us come together to the “quarters,”* and judging from our cautious movements that I, at least, was a fugitive, he was coming over to satisfy himself on the point. Immediately after the negro had ceased talking Bob himself entered the hut….

The following moment the dreaded overseer, armed to the teeth, and whip in hand, came in. In an instant he was seized by Bob and his companion, dashed violently to the floor, and dragged outside the hut. A short but terrible struggle ensued and then I heard several dull, but rapidly – delivered blows, as though struck upon some one’s head, followed by a deep, heavy groan and all was still as before….

The usual punishment inflicted for the crime that had been committed by Bob, was death by burning alive in the presence of all the slaves on the plantation, but Mr. Bertrand, who is a rabid Secessionist, decided upon another course. He resolved instead of executing the regular sentence upon the poor, devoted slave, who had committed one of the highest crimes because I, (who was under the protection of the Slaves’ Masonic League), had been in danger of recapture, to send him to the Confederate army to labor in the intrenchments….

…Bob was soon made aware of his owner’s intention, and thereupon, with the big tears coming down his ebon-hued cheeks, he begged that he might be allowed to bid his mother good-bye. But it seemed as though it was at this very point that Bertrand had determined to torture his victim; for, with a terrible oath, he denied him the privilege begged for, and, as the negro seemed somewhat inclined to disobey him and step away in search of his mother, he raised a heavy walking cane that he had in his hand and struck him a stunning blow that felled him to the earth.

I was prepared for something brutal to follow, but the scene that did ensue, I must confess actually paralyzed me. For a moment the poor fellow lay where he had fallen, and the, rousing himself, he got to his feet. Glancing silently about him for a moment, he turned upon his heartless master, and, with a yell that still rings in my ears, grasped him by the throat, threw him down, and, planting his knee upon his breast, whipped out a long, keen knife, that must have been concealed upon his person from the time of his arrest.

So astonished were the soldiers that not one of them seemed capable of motion, and, with blade uplifted, his eyes starting from their sockets, and his left hand clutching his master’s neck cloth, Bob thus addressed his prostrate victim:

“Massa, you’s had poor Bob whipped many a time fur nuffin, and now I’seagwine to habrebenge on you! You won’t whip Bob any more fur nuffin! Good-bye, massa! good-bye!”

At this instant the soldiers, recovering their volition, rushed simultaneously forward; but it was too late. The slave, as the last word of his wild and mournful exclamation left his lips, dashed the vengeful steel, not into his master’s heart, as we had all expected, but across his own throat, cutting the later from ear to ear….

As though to add to the excitement of this terrible scene at this moment, Bob’s mother, who had been detained away, came hobbling up, and, as she heard all that a dozen tongues informed her, and saw her son weltering in his own blood, her feelings found vent in the most extravagant exclamations of grief. Throwing herself upon the body, she kissed the stiffening features over and over again, and spoke to the dead man in endearing tones, as though he could still hear and understand her. 

In the meantime Bertrand, finding that he was out of further danger, quickly gained his feet, and, with the blind vindictiveness of a wild beast, flew at poor old Aunt Debby. Dragging her from the corpse of her child, he shook her violently, exclaiming with an oath:

“You black reprobate, I’ll take all this out of your skin. I’ll have you whipped to death.”

As the inhuman speaker said this, he pushed Aunt Debby from him, and the aged, decrepit woman fell heavily across the body of her son, striking her temple with such force upon a stone as to render her insensible.

At this dastardly act even the soldiers, men accustomed as they were to scenes of brutality and blood, exclaimed with one voice:

“Shame! Shame!”…

Midnight brought no improvement, and by one o’clock it was very evident, that the weak, unoffending victim of a cruel master’s anger, was dying. I could do no more, and falling upon my knees I commended Aunt Debby to God.

Just before I finished my prayer, I became conscious of the presence of some one close behind me, and, as I rose, I was confronted by a tall and beautiful lady, whose features, although regular and lovely, were ashy pale.

“What does that mean?” inquired the new comer, pointing in astonishment to my shoulder.

I cast my eyes in the direction indicated, and saw that I was discovered. In my exertions with the dying woman my dress had become slightly disarranged, and, as it was only those parts of my person usually exposed to view that had been colored, the disguise was immediately perceptible. Without any attempt, however, to excuse myself, I thus answered the unexpected visitor, who, as I had already surmised was none other than Mrs. Bertrand:

“Madam, I feel assured that nothing but your own merciful heart has prompted you thus to visit this humble place at such a late hour. I am, as you doubtless suspect, a white woman, and a fugitive. I am ready to explain all to you, but not now. This poor, old creature, who to-day was struck down insensible upon the dead body of her son, is dying - !”

“Dying! Oh, no! God forbid!” interrupted Mrs. Bertrand, in troubled, anxious tones as she hastened to the humble couch, and bent tenderly over Aunt Debby, who did not, however, recognize her….

All was still. Death was in Aunt Debby’s hut, and, as she lay in the sleep that knows no waking, I narrated to Mrs. Bertrand the story of my escape and subsequent trials and perils.

“Ah!” exclaimed she, as I finished the recital, “you have indeed had but a sorry experience within the last six months of your life; but cheer up, I have hopes that this fleet which is now hovering along the coast, will gain a victory and give us peace, for it is well known that its destination is Port Royal.

“How rejoiced would I be,” replied I warmly, my enthusiasm forcing all other thoughts out of my head, “to once more see the dear old Star Spangled Banner waving triumphantly over the whole land.

And so would I, and so would many and many a Southerner, who at present is obliged to keep quiet. Yes, and three-fourths of the Southern army itself will hail the old flag with delight instead of fight against it….”

…During the conversation I had with Mrs. Bertrand I learned that a message having arrived for her husband shortly after the transpiring scene I narrated above, to go immediately to Fort Walker upon urgent business, he had left home, and she, taking advantage of his absence, came over to “the quarters.” I could not ascertain from her, however, the reason why she came at midnight instead of daylight….

…Ere dawn came I was several miles away from the Bertrand plantation, making, with what speed a due exercise of caution allowed in the direction of Port Royal.

It was on November 7, that the booming thunder of the guns of the Union fleet, and the sullen answering roar of the Hilton Head batteries, announced that the conflict had commenced. Oh! how new! how singular! how intense were the emotions that filled me. Hour followed hour, and still the bleeding cannons hurled huge, solid shot, and screaming, death-dealing shells into the faces and breasts of living, human beings. Merciful heavens! how awful. In the afternoon came a lull, then a few final salvoes, and the work was done. It would be impossible to describe the scene of confusion that followed. The rebel troops came flying helter-skelter in retreat, closely followed by the terrified inhabitants. Many slaves I saw shot down by their masters because they were unwilling to come along with the latter.

With a number of the poor wretches I made my way to the shore, where, as far as practicable, I rid myself of my disguise. Discovering myself to a Lieutenant, I told him in a few, hasty words my sorrowful story, and was, by the noble young officer, placed under the especial protection of a soldier. Still, for all, I could scarcely convince myself that I was safe with friends, and no longer an imperiled fugitive, and it was not until I beheld a long line of boats slowly coming ashore, their oars dipping in time with a mournful dirge, that I fully comprehended it all. As my ears drank in the solemn, wailing melody, the boats grounded on the sandy beach, and eight noble forms, cold in death, were lifted from their thwarts, and borne upon the shoulders of their surviving comrades to their final resting place, I could not help murmuring as the shrouded heroes passed:

“God bless you, dear, brave souls! You have given your lives to defend yonder bright banner that floats so proudly upon the breeze….”


* The cluster of huts on a plantation in which the slaves and their families live are called “The Quarters.”

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
Six months among the secessionists : A reliable and thrilling narrative of the sufferings and trials of Miss Sarah L. Palmer, a native of Pennsylvania who, at the opening of the great southern rebellion, was teaching school in Knoxville, the home of Parson Brownlow. In this work Miss Palmer thrillingly depicts the many startling adventures she met with in her flight from state to state and town to town of the Confederate States. Also her pursuit by her disappointed rebel suitor : Splendidly illustrated.
Sarah L. Palmer
Barclay & Co.
Place of Publication: 
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
American Antiquarian Society
Catalog Code: 
G526 P176 S862