In 1986, the journal of Thomas Benjamin Chaplin (1822-1890) was published as Tombee: Portrait of a Cotton Planter. Covering primarily 1845-1858, it documents the life and times of the master of Tombee (“Tom B.”) plantation on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, and presents (to quote its Amazon listing) “a study of the dull horror of plantation slavery.”
On July 4, 1876, when Chaplin sat down to write a letter to Kentucky congressman Thomas Laurens Jones, the Civil War had made his life unrecognizable from the one chronicled in his journal.
Chaplin expressed delight at regaining contact with the “glorious old friend” and fellow Southerner he mistakenly thought had died in prison during the war. He picked up their friendship where it had left off 30 years ago, giving Jones a candid account of his travails during and after the conflict. The fall of Port Royal to Union forces in November 1861 had forced his family to flee “in very disagreeable haste,” leaving everything behind. “Words cannot tell the sufferings of that cruel war,” Chaplin wrote, which had left his family “homeless, houseless & destitute.” One of his sons was killed in battle, another wounded, and another later died from the effects of imprisonment.
After the war, Chaplin and his wife returned to St. Helena Island to live more modestly near the plantation. “We constantly see our old slaves,” he told Jones, “& much of our property,” now owned “by the Yankees who have settled there.” Chaplin praised Jones’s support of a recent amnesty bill that sought to restore citizenship to Jefferson Davis–who, Chaplin oddly believed, “did less harm than any ‘reb.'” Though embittered by the war’s effects on his fortunes, he seemed to accept the new political status of African-American men. “Do tell me Mr. Jones how do these fellows look?” he asked, curious about their presence in Washington. His own representative, he observed (likely referring to former slave Robert Smalls, elected in 1874), was “a very good fellow I believe.”
Thomas Chaplin’s letter, part of the papers of Thomas Laurens Jones, can be found in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections. Click here to download a finding aid. For the papers of other Kentucky politicians, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.