The Annual of the Association for Documentary Editing
2013, Volume 34
"Will not these days be by thy poets sung": Poems of the Anglo-African and National Anti-Slavery Standard, 1863–1864Edited by Elizabeth Lorang and R. J. Weir
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FOR THE ANTI SLAVERY STANDARD.
SUNSET ON EDISTO BEACH, S. C.
The sunset colors glowed and dimmed Across the gray clouds of the sky, The stars shone softly through the haze, As loving eyes on those who die.
There lay a small cloud in the east, And through its foldings, dark and deep, The quivering lightnings came and went, Scarce knowing when to wake or sleep;
Then sprang, as swords spring from the sheath, Keen-edged from out the shadow's brim, And flashed across the startled blue With glory, battle-like and grim.
The ocean broke upon the land With all its wealth of wave and foam, The dark wing of the cormorant Was hasting to his distant home.
Such eves, with cloud and light and wave, May oft have smiled upon this shore When house, and garden, hall and beach, With joy and mirth were running o'er.
When light steps trod the crowded beach, And children played with foam and shell, Where now, across the lonely sand, Paces the wary sentinel.
The little dark cloud in their sky Of sin and wrong, they would not see, Till justice sent the gathered storm To consummate its destiny—
To break like whirlwind; and like chaff It swept them from their place away, Leaving their desolated homes To strangers' feet and strangers' sway.
This is not vengeance. 'Tis but law, At once unchangeable and right, That he who sows the seeds of storm Must reap the whirlwind's stayless might;
That he who sins must suffer loss, Who shuts his eyes must go astray, And he who contradicts God's "Yes," Must meet the Judge's changeless "Nay."
- Edisto Island, across St. Helena Sound from St. Helena Island, where Ellen Murray lived, was a "no-man's-land" in 1863. In the summer of 1862, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered General Hunter's troops away from the Sea Islands to support General George McClellan in Virginia (Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment [Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964], 183). The region's defenses were rearranged, and Edisto evacuated as a result. Although Union and Confederate raids occurred on the island from time to time, Murray visited the beach: her "Moonlight on Edisto Beach," a partner piece to "Sunset" that appeared in the National Anti-Slavery Standard of July 18, 1863, bears the dateline "Edisto."
- Murray's striking Old Testament similes identify the Sea Island planters and their families with unthinking sinners swept away by divine wrath. The book of Isaiah's figures of tempest must have had a special resonance for island dwellers. See 17:13, for example: "The nations shall rush like the rushing of many waters: but God shall rebuke them, and they shall flee far off, and shall be chased as the chaff of the mountains before the wind, and like a rolling thing before the whirlwind." Murray explained the exile of Sea Islands' white Southern population as a punishment for its complicity in the sin of slavery.
- In the summer of 1862 Ellen Murray (1834–1908) joined her good friend Laura Matilda Towne on South Carolina's Sea Islands. When South Carolinian planters abandoned the islands to federal troops after the Battle of Port Royal (November 7, 1861), they left behind them empty mansions, cotton plantations, and a population of former slaves. Northern antislavery philanthropists saw the region as a field for missionary endeavor and founded societies for the relief and education of the newly free islanders. Towne, an abolitionist physician, accompanied an early shipment of aid from the Port Royal Relief Committee (subsequently the Pennsylvania Freedmen's Relief Association). "I shall want Ellen's help," she wrote in her diary on April 17, 1862, soon after her arrival (Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne: Written From the Sea Islands of South Carolina, 1862–1884, ed. Rupert Sargent Holland [Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1912], 8). Working as a team, Murray and Towne threw their energies into a larger educational mission on the islands. They founded Penn School on St. Helena in September 1862, and Murray, an experienced teacher, took over its day-to-day running and served as its principal. In spite of periods of illness and increasing financial difficulties, both women taught there for the next forty years. For more on Towne and Murray, see Ronald E. Butchart, "Laura Towne and Ellen Murray: Northern Expatriates and the Foundations of Black Education in South Carolina, 1862–1908," in South Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times, ed. Marjorie Julian Spruill, et al. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010), 12–30.During the war, Murray found time to write a number of poems for the Anti-Slavery Standard. At least fifteen pieces were attributed to "Ellen," "E. Murray," or "Ellen Murray" between April 1861 and March 1865. In addition to "Sunset on Edisto Beach," see "The Martyr of December 2, 1859" (October 26, 1861); "Deus Eversor!" (November 16, 1861); "Our Watchword" (May 10, 1862); "Tamar's Prayer" (August 2, 1862); "Half-Way" (October 4, 1862); "The First Day of January, 1863" (December 27, 1862); "God with Us" (April 18, 1863); "Moonlight on Edisto Beach" (July 18, 1863); "Col. Robert G. Shaw" (August 22, 1863); "The Workingman" (January 30, 1864); "The Freed Land" (August 13, 1864); "Olustee" (December 17, 1864); and "Going Home to Edisto" (March 18, 1865). The "St. Helena" datelines identified Murray's poems as a form of literary testimony from the Sea Islands, akin to the prose in the Standard's "South Carolina correspondence" column.