The Tar Baby and the Tomahawk: Race and Ethnic Images in American Children's Literature, 1880-1939



IN 1862, my company stacked their guns one bright May evening, unslung their knap-sacks, unbuckled their cartridge-belts, donned their fatigue uniforms, and, with the method of well-trained soldiers, proceeded to erect a little village of tents beside a beautiful artificial lake made by capturing the tide at its flood, as it poured from the Edisto River up a narrow sluiceway into the extensive and beautiful grounds surrounding the Seabrook mansion. The mocking-birds were in full tune among the trees, and trolling their songs from the great magnolias. Lonely palms stood stark in the glare of sunset by the side of symmetrical live-oaks and cone-shaped pines resting like enormous hay-cocks on the rim of the horizon. The gables, towers, and chimneys of the mansion rose above the mat of trees and shadow, to catch the richness of sunset tints and reflect their fire from many a dazzling dormer. Barns, cotton houses, slave-quarters, together with the multi-tudinous out-buildings of a Southern plantation, stood on the river bank overlooking its wide waters.

Bird-song, the hum of busy men, the thud of blows driving tent-pins, the stamping of horses as they stood in the wagon-train, the sharp, incisive orders of subaltern officers, as men moved and tents rose at their commands, were the only sounds. War had rested its palsying hand on lovely Edisto, silencing the low of herds, the happy laugh of negroes, and the joy of yonder fair and stately mansion. Everything was deserted*—fields, quarters, homestead.

Dashing out of the forest line and galloping across a vast plain, with cotton rows disturbing its level like ripples on a sea of sand, rode a glittering group of officers with a train of mounted orderlies—Brigadier-General H.G. Wright and his staff. On they came, waving a passing salute to the officers of my detachment, and clattered up the broad shell-avenue to Sea-brook house, there to establish brigade head-quarters in its vacant halls.

The men of my company worked with a will at their canvas homes. Their hearts were light and proud that day—for had they not at grand review caught the general's eye, and by their step and keeping won his favor and the privilege of being his guard at his headquarters?

While watching the erection of my own tent, under the generous shade of a live-oak tree, I heard a shrill, childish yell, and then the shouts of the men. Turning, I saw a sight that was too much for the gravity of even a commanding officer. Down the street—newly walled oft by the canvas houses—came a little darky at lightning speed. His bare black legs shone like the spokes of a rapidly revolving carriage-wheel, as they spun over the ground; his head was thrown back; his eyes stuck out until the white rings around their pupils made each look like the bull's-eye of a target; his capacious mouth was open for vociferous yelling, and the fragmentary shirt he wore was extended as far behind him as its scanty material could reach. It did not take an observant eye to see that that jet-black youngster was likely to lose his color from fright. And no wonder; for behind him was a long-legged corporal holding a bayoneted musket within reaching distance of his flying calico.

The explanation of this strange chase was not at first evident. While Corporal Russel was the jolliest of fellows in camp, and always ready for trick or joke, there was now in his gait and face a savage determination to catch that darky or run him beyond the department limits. As the youngster came closer the mystery was solved. In one hand he held a chunk of bacon, and in the other a hardtack. The little rascal had been caught stealing from the corporal's haversack.


Well knowing that the corporal would not hurt him,—for he was kindness itself the whole length of his queer, gaunt form,—the comicality of the race struck me. Naturally taking part with the weaker, I joined in the shouting with, "Go it, Sambo! You are beating him! Hold on to the bacon!"

I think this last expression of encouragement decided the little fellow, for he gave one wild, supplicating look at me, changed his course suddenly, and circled to the protection of my legs. There he clung, in terrified entreaty, much to the detriment of my uniform from his handful of grease.

"Don' you let 'im kill-er me, mas'r! Don' you let 'im kill-er me! I did n't take 'em! I 'll gib um back right away! I 's so hungry. Don' you let 'im kill-er me!"

The little fellow's cry, "I 's so hungry," touched me. I have been hungry myself, and experience makes us wonderfully charitable. While the breathless corporal halted, shouldered his musket, and stood at "attention" before me, the perfect picture of a soldier, I did what I could to console the waif through a long and tearful outburst, which finally came to an abrupt conclusion from his choking on a piece of cracker that he had tried to swallow between his sobs.

"He is hungry, Corporal—nearly starved. He must have been left behind when the people left here, and has had nothing to eat since."

In an instant Corporal Russel's face changed from embarrassment, at being so ludicrously caught, to anxious sympathy.

"Let me have him, Captain. He shall have all I 've got."

A yell from the little fellow, and a renewed grasp of his greasy fingers, admonished me that, however willing the corporal might be to feed him, I was regarded by the stray as his defender and adopted protector. Nor would he take his baconed grasp from my trousers until I had promised him that the corporal should not have him.

From that moment he believed that I had saved his life, and never afterward, on weary march, on dangerous picket, or in the heat of deadly fray, did he swerve from the fidelity born of his gratitude.

Soon the tents were pitched, the camp-fires were lighted, groups sat in their red glare, or lolled where the rippled lake put ruffles around the moon's reflected face (a silvery night-cap most becoming) until "taps" darkened the camp, and no sound but the bittern's cry and measured tread of sentinels disturbed the silence of the night. In a corner of my tent, well fed and sound asleep, lay little "Nigger June."

He had told me his name and his story in his own quaint way. When the Federal gunboats steamed up the Edisto River, the ignorant and terrified slaves fled to hiding-places in the swamp-forests or followed their masters from, the island to the mainland; and June, whose whole family tree, so far as he knew, consisted of the one guardian he had ever had (his old "Aunt Peggy "), was, owing to the shortness of his legs and a chronic habit of going to sleep under all possible circumstances, left behind. Hunger was too much for his honesty; so, like a dog after a bone, he had sneaked into the camp and was spied by the keen-eyed corporal foraging on the provisions. He took to his new surroundings as naturally as if he had been born by a camp-fire and cradled in a drum. Like a cat left behind in a deserted home, he became a legacy to the new-comers, and he was petted and cared for accordingly.

To say anything without an enforcing emphasis, or to expect to be believed without reference to some authority of higher value than his own, was foreign to June's idea of impressive English. His lingo was that of the Carolina Sea Islands, but his laugh was cosmopolitan — there was no limit to its shades and changes. It embodied the diapason of jollity, was ready at the slight¬est provocation, and was as infectious as sneezes from snuff. His dancing incorporated every caper that ever was cut; his full, rich, contralto voice rang out the complete weird song-lore of his race. It was not long before he became known throughout the whole Tenth Army Corps. No picnic, coon-hunt, fishing-party, nor camp game in which the men indulged was complete without him.


He was in constant demand from all parts of the command because of the amusement he afforded, and in consequence was generally "lent out" to some one. Unlike other loans, he never failed to return. Diving for quarters in a tub of meal was his specialty. He could keep his "bullet" head under longer than any other darky in the Department of the South,—never failing to capture the silver in his teeth and be up in time to have a laugh at his rooting, struggling competitors. Butting was a favorite pastime. With head down, shoulders up, prancing on one leg, he would issue challenge to man or boy to do battle with him, and he always scored a victory.

An immense negro, named Orchard, used to come daily into camp with a tub on his head containing shrimps, which found ready sale among the soldiers. June had repeatedly danced his war-dance around Orchard without obtaining even recognition as an enemy.

One day, after an unsuccessful challenge, he came to me disgusted and full of contempt. "See um dar, Cappin, see urn, dat big niggah. Him too proud. Woffer him not butt me? Wofi'er him not go down on his knees an' butt me? 'Deed, I knock 'm shoo."

Being in full sympathy with my butting phenomenon, and having been his backer on many occasions, I said, "June, I will give you a quarter if you make Orchard drop that tub of shrimps."

After he had taken a roll, turned two or three somersaults, and done some dancing, to work his elation out properly, he replied:

"Mas'r, dat quartan 's mine. Dat tub mighty high up. Long way up to dat tub, Mas'r Cap-pin. Orchard hab to git from un'er him." He dashed off in high glee, and was soon stalking beside the black shrimp merchant, with an empty cracker-box balanced on his head, imitating his big model in every action. I watched his maneuvers with keen enjoyment,—it was a contest between a pygmy and a giant. He soon attracted Orchard's attention, and the shrimp dealer came to a sudden and dignified halt.

"What you doin' dat fo', you grinnin' monkey ? What you make mock ob me fo'? " asked Orchard, angrily.

"Put down you' tub, an' butt me den," was the little fellow's reply. "Ain't I ax you, ebry day, fo' to butt me? Put down you' tub."

Thus "daring" him, June laid his cracker-box upside down, a few feet in front of the irate Orchard, and backed oft' as if preparing for an acceptance of his challenge.

"Go 'way, chile. If I butt you, I kill you, shoo. What fo' I go buttin' sich a pickaninny like you, fo'?"

"Put down dat tub! " was all the answer he had from June, who was posturing like a goat full of fight.

"Go 'way, you sassy niggah! What fo' I put down de tub fo' de likes ob you?"

The halt and parley were what the little strategist was after. Quick as a flash he charged like a ram, leaped from the cracker-box, shot forward as from a catapult, and landed his head with the force of a solid shot fair on Orchard's waistband! If Orchard had been hinged in the middle he could not have doubled up more quickly. Down came the tub, the shrimps flew in all directions, and before the astonished giant comprehended what had happened, June was shrieking his delight and celebrating his victory behind a group of soldiers who were cheering his exploit.

The promised quarter was paid to June, and Orchard was compensated for his shrimps; but it was many a day before he forgave " dat grinnin', buttin', sassy brack monkey."

June was always the hero of his adventures, but he was not always heroic. A few days after his appearance in camp, he was despatched to fetch some water from a spring under the protecting shade of a leaning live-oak some distance away, across the plain of cotton rows. In order that he might not have to go soon again, he determined to carry "a lazy man's load." Therefore he put a mackerel-kit on his head, took a bucket in each hand, and away he went—a walking reservoir. Pretty soon he came bounding across the field, bouncing from the cotton-rows like a ricochet shot, yelling at the top of his voice, "De Debble, de Debble, de Debble!" As usual, when in trouble, he came straight to me. All he could gasp was:

"Oh, de Debble, de Debble, de Debble! Lawks-a-massy, Cappin, I see um de Debble!"


"Where?" I asked, as well as laughing would let me.

"In de watah. I stoop down to de watah ober yonder by de spring, an' jus' ez I gwine to scoop de watah in de bucket, dar wuz de Debble dar, lookin' right out de watah at me. Oh, I 'm gwine to die! De Debble's gwine to catch me, sho. Don't let um catch me, Mas'r Cappin!" He was terribly frightened—trembling, and clinging to me piteously. He had certainly seen something.

"Don't be afraid, June," I said consolingly.[illustration - "Behind him was a long-legged corporal holding a bayoneted musket.] "You did not see any devil." He backed up his positive assertion to the contrary with a favor¬ite expression. "Fo' a troof, Cappin, I see um. Ain't I know 'im when I see um? Dar wuz his two homs, an' eyes afire, an' mouf big fo' to swaller me right down kerplump,—ain't I see um?"

Nothing would convince him that he had made a mistake,—and nothing ever did.

For a moment I was frightened, too, when I went to the spring after the abandoned buckets, and to see what was the matter: for, there in the water was reflected a countenance of more than Satanic ugliness. As it quickly disappeared, a heavy thud on the ground just beside me inclined me to follow in the footsteps of June and to confess entire adoption of his belief. An instant sufficed to show me that the supposed demon was a large Angora goat, resting in the broad crotch of the leaning tree. The goat's head and shoulders were vaguely mirrored in the spring.

June was no manner of use, so far as the performance of any duty was concerned, but in the camp he was a power which would have been sadly missed. He was the camp Jester. From reveille to taps, his merry pranks amused the men, his laugh kept all in good humor. He was circus, clown, and side-show, combined. He could climb a tree, shake down a 'coon, and be back in time to be mixed with the pile of dogs and darkies in at the death. He could run a rabbit to earth, see a squirrel in its thickest hiding-place, throw a stone unerringly, and out-ma-noeuver any man in the company. His likes and dislikes for the different men were strong, and knew no compromise. Woe to the soldier who excited June's ire! His shoes would be missing, his haversack mysteriously filled with sand, his blanket with nettles, his canteen with salt-water from the lake, and his every peculiarity would be pantomimed for the amusement of
his comrades. He invariably appeared on dress-parade in a unique uniform. A sardine-box carried his cartridges, a bit of string answered for belt, a forked stick for a gun. No man of the company went through the parade exercises better, and, if it pleased him to imitate the commanding officer a few feet to the rear, the quivering line of muskets and red faces of the men bore testimony to the exactness of his mimicry.

He was once caught tying a pair of wickedly clawed crabs into the coat-sleeve of one of his tormentors. The wags of the company decided to try him by court martial. The charge was "conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline." June pleaded his own cause manfully. "What fo' you sittin' on me fo'? Mar's Cappin an' Aunt Peggy is my boss; an' Aunt Peggy ain't yere no mo'. Le' me go. Woffer you sittin' on me?" Notwithstanding the force and logic of his defense, he was ruthlessly sentenced to a term of imprisonment within the walls of an empty and headless pork-barrel. In this predicament, he said indignantly to me, "See-um dis, Cappin! See-um dis! Cappin, fo' goodness sake, come take-er-me out. I 'll butt dat co't-ma'sh'l till um neb' go fishin' or 'coon-huntin' no mo' fo' a week!"

He kept his word. One of his persecutors narrowly escaped severe burns in the cook's fire, from being butted into the coals while lighting his pipe. Another was sent sprawling into the lake by a well-calculated blow from June's woolly head, while he was washing his platter in its waters. Another had his senses knocked out of him, being sent headlong while tying his shoes; and with all, sooner or later, the account was squared to June's complete satisfaction.

The delightful sojourn at Seabrook was only too short. One morning there was a stir at headquarters, a riding to and fro of aides-de-camp, a bustle among the orderlies, and the clerks were packing up their papers. All of these signs indicated a move.

Soon came an order to strike tents and join the main body of troops, three miles away, with my detachment. In the excitement of the move, June was in his glory. Missing articles were found as tent floors were taken up, and the secret avenues were discovered by which he obtained entrance to the tents of his enemies. "That infernal little Nigger June" was in demand throughout the camp, but he wisely shouted his derision from a safe distance.

I employed a stray contraband to carry some of the lighter and more breakable articles of my tent furniture, much to the disgust of June, and the breeding of not a little jealousy in him. Taking advantage of my being occupied away from my quarters, the little joker told the fellow that he must carry my trunk, bedding, camp-chest,
and everything else that could be hung on him—load enough for a camel. Upon my return, I found June in the last contortions of a laughing convulsion. Following with my eye his pointing finger, in the direction of our march, I saw in the distance a moving object resembling a pack-mule with a huge chest on his back and side loads reaching to the ground.

"See-um, dah, Cappin? See-um dat fool nig-gah? 'Im don't know nuffin' no mo' dan a punken. Dah he go, totin' de chist, an' trunk, an' ebbryting. 'Deed, Cappin, guess dat nig-[illustration - June is tried by court martial.] nah don't run fas' dis time, ef he hoi' on to all he tote! Hi—yah!"

It was not long before it was generally known that an attack was to be made upon Charleston; that a march across John's Island to the Stono River was to be followed by a landing on James Island, under protection of the gunboats in rendezvous there.

The march commenced; not one who was in it will ever forget its miseries from its beginning to its disastrous end. Under a scorching sun, through the stench of putrid swamps filled with rotting mussels, through chaparral alive with stinging insects; across sanded plains, making the air quiver with burning reflections; amid blinding, choking, clouds of dust—batteries tugged, cavalry plunged, and infantry trod with indescribable sufferings. June, alone, seemed not to mind it. Astride a cannon, mounted on a caisson, perched behind a mounted soldier, or trotting alongside my company, his quaint songs and antics cheered the men and lightened many a step. Every haversack was open to him; every canteen was ready to quench his thirst; every hand would be outstretched to give him a lift over a difficult bit of road.

In the long days and nights that followed, of murderous work and dangerous duty, nothing could prevent June from taking part. The most positive orders would not keep him in camp; no guard-house was tight enough to hold him. If I was doing duty with outlying pickets, on reconnaissance, or in pushing from the front a fighting skirmish-line, he would climb a chim-ney-flue, slip through some chink he had made or found, dash through a window or dart between
the legs of his guard, and speed away with unerring scent on my track. A tiny pair of black legs moving swiftly from tree to tree, the pop of a woolly head from behind a log, a glistening of his bright eyes from some jungle, would give the first knowledge of his presence,and when detected, his laughing greeting always was, "Lor', Mas'r Cappin, what a time I's done been hab huntin' you. Woffer you done go 'way fo', an' lebe-er-me?"

He never allowed himself to be put on the defensive. No one wished to see him hurt, so all tried to care for him, but it was not possible; the little fellow, in his faithfulness, felt that it was his duty to take care of me, so all efforts to keep him away and in safety were unavailing.

One day, never to be forgotten,—June 16, 1862,—a charge was made upon the Confederate earthworks at Secessionville, South Carolina, and six hundred brave men and true were laid low in front of the defenses. At an early hour on the morning of that day, I was fastening my sword about me when June waked up where he was lying curled up like a dog in the corner of my tent. I was dressing as quietly as possible without waking him, well knowing the deadly work planned for the morning, but his watchfulness was as keen as that of a Bedouin of the desert. He surprised me with the exclama¬tion, "Mas'r Cappin, what you gwine to do? Whar you been goin' to?"

He was told, sharply, to lie down and go to sleep, and I added, "June, if you follow me to-day, I will stand you on a barrel, with a bayonet on each side of you, and make you hold a piece of ice in each hand until it is all melted." This was the only punishment for which he cared a particle, and the threat of it usually set him to bellowing like an orphaned calf. Strange to say, on this occasion it produced no marked effect; he seemed to feel that something of more than usual importance was taking me out at that time in the morning, armed and equipped. He came to me, and in the faint light passed his hand around my sword-belt to feel whether or not my revolver was there. I seldom carried one,—never, indeed, unless there was an almost certain prospect of its need. When his hand touched its sheath, he took hold of my coat-sleeve in a pleading way, and said, "Woffer you go widout Niggah June? Leave 'im go 'long! 'Im git in de bush an' shake his shirt an' keep de Rebels from shootin' Mas'r Cappin."

With a laugh at his idea of protection, I told him that I would soon be back all right,—to stay where he was. I left him looking disconsolately after me as I went out.

Once in the heat of battle, when shells were shrieking their horrible death-songs overhead, when black balls of iron tore their way through ranks of living men, when grape and canister, shrapnel and bullets were raining death and wounds, the smoke lifted, and through the ragged branches of a hedge in front of me,—not two hundred yards from the fort,—I thought I saw a little black demon wildly waving a white flag.

"June!" I yelled; but the roar and rattle made my voice no more than the piping of a child in a storm, and a belch of smoke from the enemy's guns rolled as a mighty wall between me and the vision.

Such a battle could not last long. We were defeated, but the fort was nearly emptied of defenders.

When the wind shook out the air and cleared it of its smoke and angry trembling, heart-rending groans went up from that stricken field.

During the hurried gathering of the wounded, Corporal Russel came to me with face pale, and
eyes bloodshot. "Come," said he, "over by the hedge. June wants you."

I knew what he meant; the vision came back to me. There little June lay, shot to death. In one hand he clutched his rag of a shirt; in the other was my haversack which I had left in my tent. He tried to laugh when I knelt by him, as he feebly raised the haversack toward me. "I done fotch you you' breakfas', Mas'r Cappin. Dar 's sumpin to eat an' drink in de habber-sack. I done shaked my shirt an' kep de rebels from shootin' Mas'r Cappin. Don' stan' me on de bar'l, an' put col' ice in my han', dis time!"

He smiled, as he had often done before, when he knew that he had the better of me, the haversack fell to the ground, and then, with his eyes resting upon me as if waiting for an assurance of forgiveness, he died.

We laid him at the end of the long ditch where lay so many of his friends; and among those hundreds of graves was one at the head of which stood a piece of a splintered flagstaff, upon which a sincere mourner had written, "Little June."