Henry Turner


Name of interviewer: Watt McKinney

Subject: Ex-Slave and Confederate Soldiers


This information given by: "Uncle" Henry Turner (c)

Place of residence: Turner, Phillips County, Arkansas

Occupation: Plantation hand

Age: 93

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I'm gettin' old and feeble now and cannot walk no more

And I've laid the rusty-bladed hoe to rest.

Ole marster and ole missus are sleeping side by side

And their spirits are a-roamin' with the blest.

The above lines, had they been composed today, might well have been

written with reference to "Uncle" Henry Turner, ninety-three years of

age, of Turner, Arkansas, in Phillips County, and among the very few

remaining ex-slaves, especially of those who were old enough at the time

of their emancipation to have now a clear recollection of conditions,

customs, events, and life during those days long past immediately

proceeding and following the Civil War. "Uncle" Henry's eyes have now

grown dim and he totters slightly as, supported by his cane, he slowly

shuffles along the path over a short distance between the clean,

white-washed cabin where he lives with a daughter and the small,

combination store and post office, on the porch of which he is

accustomed to sit in an old cane-bottomed chair for a few hours each day

and the white folks in passing stop to speak a few words and to buy for

him candy, cold drinks, and tobacco.

Though "Uncle" Henry is approaching the century mark in age, his mind is

remarkably clear and his recollection is unusually keen. He was born

a slave in northern Mississippi near the small towns of Red Banks and

Byhalia, was the property of his owner. Edmond Turner, and was brought

to Phillips County by "his white folks" some months before the war.

Turner, who owned some fifty other slaves besides Henry, settled with

his family on a large acreage of land that he had purchased about

fifteen miles west of Helena near Trenton. Both Turner and his wife died

soon after taking up residence in Arkansas leaving their estate to their

two sons, Bart and Nat, who were by that time grown young men, and being

very capable and industrious soon developed their property into one of

the most valuable plantations in the County.

As "Uncle" Henry recalls, the Turner place was, it might be said, a

world within itself, in the confines of which was produced practically

everything essential in the life of its inhabitants and the proper and

successful conduct of its operations. Large herds of cattle, hogs,

sheep, and goats provided a bountiful supply of both fresh and salt

meats and fats. Cotton and wool was carded, spun and woven into cloth

for clothes, fast colored dyes were made by boiling different kinds

of roots and barks, various colored berries were also used for this

purpose. Medicine was prepared from roots, herbs, flowers, and leaves.

Stake and rider fences enclosed the fields and pastures and while most

of the houses, barns and cribs were constructed of logs, some lumber was

manufactured in crude sawmills in which was used what was known as a

"slash saw". This was something like the crosscut saws of today and was

operated by a crank that gave the saw an alternating up and down motion.

Wheat was ground into flour and corn into meal in mills with stone burrs

similar to those used in the rural districts today, and power for this

operation was obtained through the use of a treadmill that was given

its motion by horses or mules walking on an inclined, endless belt

constructed of heavy wooden slats.

Candles for lighting purposes were made of animal fats combined with

beeswax. Plows, harrows and cultivating implements were made on the

plantation by those Negroes who had been trained in carpentry and

blacksmithing. Plows for breaking the land were sometimes constructed

with a metal point and a wooden moldboard and harrows made of heavy

timbers with large, sharpened wooden pegs for teeth. Hats of straw and

corn shucks were woven by hand.

Small, crude cotton gins were powered by horses or mules hitched to a

beam fastened to an upright shaft around which they traveled in a circle

and to which was attached large cogwheels that multiplied the animal's

power enormously and transmitted it by means of belt to the separating

machinery where the lint was torn from the seed. No metal ties were

available during this period and ropes of cotton were used to bind

the bales of lint. About three bales was the daily capacity of a

horse-powered plantation gin.

It was often difficult to obtain the services of a competent doctor and

except in cases of serious illness home remedies were administered.

Churches were established in different communities throughout the

County and the Negro slaves were allowed the privilege of attending the

services, certain pews being set apart for them, and the same minister

that attended the spiritual needs of the master and his family rendered

like assistant to his slaves.

No undertaking establishments existed here at this time and on the death

of a person burial was made in crude caskets built of rough cypress

planks unless the deceased was a member of a family financially able to

afford the expensive metal caskets that were available no nearer than

Memphis. "Uncle" Henry Turner recalls the death of Dan Wilborn's little

six-year-old boy, Abby, who was accidentally killed when crushed by a

heavy gate on which he was playing, and his burial in what "Uncle" Henry

described as a casket made of the same material as an old-fashioned door

knob; and while I have no other authority than this on the subject,

it is possible that in that day caskets were made of some vitrified

substance, perhaps clay, and resembling the present day tile.

The planters and slaveowners of this period obtained the greater share

of their recreation in attendance at political rallies, horse races, and

cock fights. Jobe Dean and Gus Abington who came to Trenton from their

home near La Grange, Tennessee were responsible for the popularity of

these sports in Phillips County and it was they who promoted the most

spectacular of these sporting events and in which large sums of money

were wagered on the horses and the game cocks. It is said that Marve

Carruth once owned an Irish Grey Cock on which he bet and won more than

five thousand dollars one afternoon at Trenton.

No Negro slave was allowed to go beyond the confines of his owner's

plantation without written permission. This was described by "Uncle"

Henry Turner as a "pass"; and on this "pass" was written the name of the

Negro, the place he was permitted to visit, and the time beyond which he

must not fail to return. It seems that numbers of men were employed by

the County or perhaps by the slaveowners themselves whose duty it was

to patrol the community and be on constant watch for such Negroes who

attempted to escape their bondage or overstayed the time limit noted on

their "pass". Such men were known then as "Paddy Rolls" by the Negroes

and in the Southern states are still referred to by this name.

Punishment was often administered by them, and the very mention of the

name was sufficient to cause stark terror and fear in the hearts of

fugitive slaves.

At some time during that period when slavery was a legal institution in

this country, the following verse was composed by some unknown author

and set to a tune that some of the older darkies can yet sing:

Run nigger run, the Paddy Roll will get you

Run nigger run, it's almost day.

That nigger run, that nigger flew

That nigger tore his shirt into.

Run nigger run, the Paddy Roll will get you

Run nigger run, it's almost day.

Both Bart Turner and his brother Nat enlisted in the services of the

Confederacy. Nat Turner was a member of the First Arkansas Volunteers,

a regiment organized at Helena and of which Patrick R. Cleburne was

colonel. Dick Berry and Milt Wiseman, friends and neighbors of the

Turners, also volunteered and enlisted in Cleburne's command. These

three stalwart young men from Phillips County followed Cleburne

and fought under his battle flag on those bloody fields at Shiloh,

Murfreesboro, Ringgold gap, and Atlanta; and they were with him that day

in November in front of the old gin house at Franklin as the regiment

formed for another and what was to be their last charge. The dead lay

in heaps in front of them and almost filled the ditch around the

breastworks, but the command though terribly cut to pieces was forming

as cooly as if on dress parade. Above them floated a peculiar flag,

a field of deep blue on which was a crescent moon and stars. It was

Cleburne's battle flag and well the enemy knew it; they had seen it

so often before. "I tip my hat to that flag" said the Federal General

Sherman years after the war. "Whenever my men saw it they knew it meant

fight." As the regiment rushed on the Federal breastworks a gray clad

figure on a chestnut horse rode across the front of the moving column

and toward the enemy's guns. The horse went down within fifty yards of

the breastworks. The rider arose, waved his sword, and led his men on

foot to the very ramparts. Then he staggered and fell, pierced with a

dozen balls. It was Cleburne, the peerless field-marshal of Confederate

brigade commanders. The Southern cause suffered a crushing defeat at

Franklin and the casualty list recorded the names of Nat Turner, Dick

Berry, and Milt Wiseman, who like their beloved commander had given

their life for their country. There is an inscription on the stone base

of the magnificent bronze statue of General N. B. Forrest astride his

war horse in Forrest Park in Memphis that could well be placed above

the graves of Cleburne, Turner, Berry, and Wiseman, those brave, heroic

soldiers from Phillips County. The inscription in verse is as follows:

Those hoof beats die not on fame's crimson sod

But will live on in song and in story.

He fought like a Trojan and struck like a god

His dust is our ashes of glory.

Henry Smith Henry Wright facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail